Local Rhythms – Oddball Christmas Records

chrisisaak.jpgAfter descending into 5 A.M. shopping madness last Black Friday and witnessing Amazon’s server meltdown during the Internet’s own Black Monday, I need something innocuous and soothing for the dawn of December.  

Unsurprisingly, I’m one of those who turns the cable box to “Sounds of the Season” and leaves it there until the 26th.  Well, maybe not that extreme, but I have pushed my seasonal music tastes well past Nat King Cole’s version of “The Christmas Song.”  

Upon hearing a recent NPR story about how “A Charlie  Brown Christmas”  almost didn’t get made, I got to thinking of all the holiday music  that’s broken through the traditional fodder.  Jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi, with the soundtrack to the TV special, started a new musical dialogue in 1965.  The record’s never been out of print. 

What follows is a (short) list of some, shall we say, adventurous musical selections for the holiday season.  Let’s play oddball! 

Only Chris Isaak could do a credible job with Elvis Presley’s “Blue Christmas.”  The rest of his “Christmas” album has plenty of upper lip quivering and quirky Farfisa organ riffs.  On the other hand, “Christmas With Jethro Tull” is really just piling on, don’t you think? 

Speaking of freakish contributions to the Christmas music canon, do you realize that a henna-haired Billy Idol, looking like your cousin that won the high school talent contest, recently unleashed “Happy Holidays” on an unsuspecting world?   

From the Disney mouse factory, Aly & AJ try, with “Acoustic Hearts of Winter,” to mint a new holiday standard. “The Greatest Time of Year” sounds like a ‘tween “Born to Run” with sleigh bells.

On “Wintersong,” Sarah McLachlan covers Joni Mitchell’s  suicidal “River.”  Even more dour is Aimee Mann’s “One More Drifter in the Snow,” but I like it because the sullen pose is impossibly endearing.  I hear Mann’s version of Jimmy Webb’s “Whatever Happened to Christmas,” and just want to feed her hot buttered rums. 

Topping my list is the rootsy “Christmas With Jorma Kaukonen,” with wintry finger picking and “Christmas Rule,”  where the Hot Tuna frontman recalls burning Santa’s sleigh from the sky and being drafted as an elf as a result.  Fun stuff, but don’t try it at home.

Now, as regards the weekend’s live entertainment options, here’s a more prosaic list of recommendations: 

Thursday:  Averi, New England College –  If a new generation of arena rockers is ever anointed to replace the dwindling dinosaur population, this Boston band should lead the charge.  They have a big sound, and the chutzpah to cover Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” with a reverently straight face.  I wonder if the college crowd in Henniker will go wild for them.  Did I miss a culture shift memo?

Friday: Scott Ainslie, Hooker-Dunham Sanctuary – Bluesologist and author of one of the better protest songs of the past few years (“Don’t Obey” from 2004’s “Feral Crow”), Ainslie  returns for what’s become a regular first Friday in December appearance in downtown Brattleboro.  Here is living proof that white men can play the blues. 

Saturday:   Hot Tuna, Lebanon Opera House –  Some of my earliest rock shows were witnessed through a hole in the ceiling of a bar in the Santa Cruz Mountains, watching this band.  In those days they featured the late Papa John Creach on violin.  Some nights they were electric, others acoustic, and their early music set the tone for a lot of Americana bands who followed.  Tonight, Jorma and Jack’s sound is complemented by drums and mandolin.

Sunday: Area Choir, Newport First Congregational Church – This is another of those “if you haven’t seen it, you don’t know what you’re missing” recommendations.  A local tradition since 1953, the Area Choir assembles the best singers from churches throughout the region for a program of hymns and Christmas carols in a beautiful setting.  Congregants are invited to sing along to “What Child Is This” and “Silent Night” in addition to listening.

Tuesday: Acoustic Coalition, Quechee Inn – New to this space!  After months of good intentions, I finally had a chance to see the Gully Boys at Seven Barrels last weekend.  I left my email address, and for my trouble was tipped off to this weekly event.  Tuesdays in Quechee, it’s a hybrid open mike/song circle, featuring local musicians Dave Clark, Jed Dickinson and Kerry Rosenthal, along with a rotating group of friends like Terry Diers, Ford Daley and Sam Moffatt.

Wednesday:  Sonya Kitchell & Ben Taylor, Northampton Academy of Music – This young lady simply knocked my socks off at this summer’s Newport Folk Festival.  The teenager belts like Janis Joplin, and doesn’t need Southern Comfort to stay loose.  Ben Taylor looks like a carbon copy of father James, though his sound’s far grittier, which explains his appeal to the alt-rock crowd.

Jazz On A Sunday Afternoon Returns December 1

al-alessismall.jpg“Jazz on a Sunday Afternoon,” one of the area’s longest-running traditions, returns to Grantham’s Center at Eastman this Sunday for its fifteenth season. This year’s lineup features ten performers as musically far-ranging as jazz itself.

Vocalist Al Alessi seems a perfect choice for the kick-off show December 1. He handles the hits of Tony Bennett and Mel Torme with ease, but he’s also made a reputation channeling Roy Orbison and Frank Sinatra – and he plays a mean harmonica. Jody Ebling, who’s drawn notice in Miami, New York and London (where she performed at Elton John’s “Friends” restaurant), promises Christmas-flavored jazz singing December 17.

After a holiday interlude, Grammy-nominated alto saxophonist Greg Abate cuts loose on January 14th; Abate, whose credits include sessions with Ray Charles and Artie Shaw, also performs at the season finale. Jim Porcella looks like a gruff Marine, but has the silken vocal dexterity of Sammy Davis Jr.; the singer performs January 28th.

Mike Monaghan, who appears February 11, has played with Sinatra and Torme, and performed at Carnegie Hall, but most will recognize his saxophone from his many solos in the film “Mystic River.” Tiger Okoshi has become a JOSA favorite with his “tightrope walker” style of playing. The adventurous trumpeter sits in February 25.

Richie Cole has won acclaim for his unconventional jazz/bebop style on the alto sax, giving a special touch to familiar and fun songs like the theme from “I Love Lucy.” He arrives March 11th. Vocalist Shawnn Monteiro’s territory is the classics in the “Great American Songbook;” after several performances, she’s now “a part of the JOSA fabric.” She returns March 25th.

Finally, Greg Abate co-headlines an Easter “All-Star Finale” with trumpeter and vocalist Johnny Souza on April 8th. All performances feature the JOSA Ensemble, with Bill Wightman, bassist John Hunter, percussionist Tim Gilmore and reedman/flutist Richard Gardzina.

Over the 14 seasons of JOSA, there has been one constant element: founder and house band leader Bill Wightman. The Berklee-trained pianist began promoting the shows at the Sunapee Country Club in 1992. They moved to the Newport Opera House when Wightman took over as director there in the mid-90’s, and “when I left, I took them with me,” says Wightman.

Two figures loom large in their absence from this year’s series – vocalist Eve Whitcomb, who died in 2003, and saxophone player Joe Burrell, who passed away in 2005. “Joe and Lady Eve were the mainstays from day one,” says Wightman. “Basically for 12-13 years they were there, and really helped build it. They would show up to perform even when they weren’t featured.”

Burrell was scheduled to perform the 2005 season finale, which ultimately became a musical tribute to him. This year’s program proclaims that “with great respect, admiration and gratitude, we dedicate this JOSA season to “Big Joe” Burrell.”

“Joe – what a guy, what a mentor – for all of us,” says Wightman, who also remembers “Big Joe” as being less than patient with musicians who couldn’t keep pace with his standards. “He was harsher than Eve. He yelled at me once – ‘what did you do with that channel?’ I learned from him ‘the channel’ was the [song’s] bridge.”

“ I guess he thought you have to go underneath, not over it,” laughs Wightman. “I miss him, just talking about him now.”

The “jam session” ethic is a big part of the series’ appeal. Every performance has the potential for surprise, with area musicians stopping by to play.

“One of the things about JOSA,” says Bill Wightman,” is that it involves the audience, to the degree that we let them sit in. They’re not always great , but sometimes they are. The audience likes to see them take that risk.”

This gives the audience the “sense [of] what it’s like to be backstage with the band,” he continues. “They feel the tension, the edge.”

“The only time it may get rough is when a drummer sits in,” he chuckles.

“Sit-in” musicians are further encouraged with a reduced ticket price.

Wightman says he likes fans to arrive with “a sense that we’re going out to see something special.”

Adding to JOSA’s intimate elegance is the contribution of chef Brian MacKenzie, who prepares a $32 prix fixe meal to jazz fans, complete with white linen, polished silver and dishes that are both photogenic and delicious. This is MacKenzie’s second year offering the meals. They were a big success last year, with more than 70 percent of the audience partaking.

But the focus is and will remain “America’s Music,” which has evolved and transformed itself over its near 100-year history. “JOSA is jazz but not just jazz,” says Wightman. “The jazz music label covers a wide variety of musical genres including swing, blues, bop, Latin and more.”

Perhaps Shawnn Monteiro summed it up best. Quoting her father, the late jazz bassist Jimmy Woode, she said, “jazz, jazz, jazz – you never know what’s gonna happen. It’s gonna happen, so we’ll leave it to chance, OK?”

Local Rhythms – My Thanksgiving

turkey.gifTonight at the dinner table, I’ll give thanks for my family, and after, antacid.  Right now, I want to be a little more public in my display of gratitude.  Here’s an honor roll of the people and things that sustained me over the past year.

Thanks to  Claremont’s  restaurateurs for making my hometown a destination, and transforming the question of where to go for dinner into a wonderfully complex decision process.  Demiglace, garlic knots, coconut shrimp or handmade ravioli?  So many choices, I love it!

Thanks  to the young musicians – Hexerei, Stonewall, foreverinmotion, Syd, the Ruse (past and future), and others – for pumping the blood into my rock and roll heart.  There’s not a lot of money in the music business, but these kids have boundless passion and commitment in spite of that.

Thanks to YouTube, MySpace, purevolume and GarageBand.com, for providing easy to use tools to help bands get the word out, and a way for me to find them.

Thanks to the veteran players still in the game.  Al Alessi, Pete Merrigan, Spectris, Rick & Dave Davis and the Conniption Fits all continue to represent the region’s rich musical heritage.

Thanks to Charlie, Patrick, Ezra, Thomasina and the rest of the gang at Flying Under Radar in Bellows Falls.   It was a great run – come back soon.

Thanks to Josh and Joe Tuohy, for challenging their customers every week with eclectic musical choices.  When you walk into Salt Hill Pub, you can expect the unexpected – everything from power pop to Celtic reels  to  jumping jam band sounds. 

Thanks to Gardner Goldsmith at WNTK for proving  that  two people can be worlds apart ideologically, yet find common ground talking about YouTube, iTunes and the Long Tail.  Let’s promote world peace by giving the Israelis and the Palestinians a Radio Birdman record to discuss.

Thanks to Keith Olbermann, for being snarky, smart and never boring. 

Thanks to  HDNet, for TV concerts that look and sound better than the real thing, and  don’t cost a paycheck; also to Rhapsody for building a digital player that makes music discovery portable with their brilliantly cool Channels feature.  Now I don’t have an excuse to stay home all the time.  Where should you venture this weekend?  Here are a few compelling area performances to consider for the coming days:

Thursday: Sun King, Heritage Tavern –  Join former members of Shine for an after-dinner party in Charlestown, and dance away the holiday meal.  According to National Geographic, the tryptophan in turkey has gotten a bad rap all these years.  It doesn’t really make you sleepy after all.  I still need a nap after all that food, though, whether it’s the bird’s fault or not.

Friday:  Spare Change, Sophie & Zeke’s – Speaking of veterans of the local scene, Joe Stallsmith’s name is discussed a lot when the history of Hanover music comes up.  He fronts a few different bands with varying musical styles.  This combo is a three-piece –  guitar, mandolin and fiddle – that mines the same territory as Spiral Farm Band, another S&Z’s favorite.  From Nashville to Texas, with a long walk along the Blue Ridge Mountains – that’s Americana.

Saturday: Davis Brothers Garage Band 2, Shenanigans – After a fun-packed reunion a few weeks back, a local institution returns with a slightly different configuration.  Carey Lee Rush sits in on guitar, and  there will be a few surprise guests during the evening.  Last fall, Rick Davis organized a birthday bash for our mutual friend Bob Rivers, where we watched a few vintage 1981 reels of the band.  That must have started this trip down memory lane.

Sunday:  Aztec Two-Step, Iron Horse – 35 years after meeting at a Boston open mike night, this duo is still playing and making new music.  Their repertoire is full of easygoing folk tunes.  It’s a mystery why Seals & Crofts made it to the top of the pile while these guys only got halfway up the ladder. 

Tuesday:  Irish Sessions with Dave Loney, Salt Hill – Last Tuesday, there were a dozen musicians in the circle at the center of Lebanon’s pub on the Green.  That’s what happens when the weather turns cold.  So if you want to beat the chill, stop in, grab a pint and enjoy the spontaneous inspiration that so often transpires with this pickup band of fiddlers, pickers and pennywhistlers.

Wednesday:  Dinosaur, Jr., Paradise Boston – Long before Nirvana and Pearl Jam, high school buddies J. Mascis and Lou Barlow pioneered the refined garage band sound in the clubs of Northampton, Massachusetts.  Mascis and Barlow fought like the Toxic Twins, but in the past few years decided to mend fences and play together again.  A new album from the original trio is due next year.  The band plays also plays Pearl Street in their hometown on December 1.

David Mallett – Still In Search of the New

dave-mallett.gifDavid Mallett brings folk music with a northern perspective to the Claremont Opera House this Saturday, but listeners would be surprised at where the Maine native goes for inspiration.

“I don’t have time to listen to anything I’ve already heard, I just want to hear new stuff,” he says.  He’s a big fan of  the Link, a music video outlet that shows  “stuff from Russia, India, Brazil – it’s really cool to watch that stuff.” 

This eclecticism extends to Mallett’s family.  HIs son fronts Lab Seven, a Portland-based hip-hop band that’s built a strong regional fan base.   You’d expect a folkie who cites the Kingston Trio, Johnny Cash and Stephen Foster as influences to run screaming from  the room at this, but not Mallett. 

“I’m very excited by it,” he says.  “In a way, rap is  the folk music of the current generation.  This is where they get their words out, you know what I mean?  When I was a kid folk was for young people,  Nobody understood it.”

Mallett thinks Woody Guthrie would approve of this urban sound, which he terms “a modern take on the Dust Bowl ballads.  The rappers and hip hop guys are simply describing their own experience, their own Dust Bowl.”

David Mallett’s own musical journey began as a teenager, when he and his brother performed as the Mallet Brothers and made music inspired by the family team of Don and Phil Everly.  They recorded a few 45s, and hosted a variety show on a Bangor television station. 

“It’s  nice to have your own TV show when you’re 16,” laughs Mallett. “It kind of spoils you for the rest of your life.”

Mallett befriended Noel Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul and Mary fame in the mid-70’s, and made his mark  with “The Garden  Song,” a tune that’s been covered no less than 150 times, by everyone from Arlo Guthrie to the Muppets. 

“It was amazing,” Mallett says of the song’s success.  “ I wrote it in 1975, mostly just as a way to pass the time.   I was working in the garden with my father, and it came up as sort of a little work song.”

Over the years, it’s been used to sell garden equipment in Spain, fertilizer in Ireland, and it’s also a regular on the Today show, which uses it for a recurring gardening segment.

“It came from this land I live on and from my father teaching me how to plant corn,” he says.  “It came from very little effort, and those are the best kind of songs.  They just sort of say ‘I’m here.’”

Mallett spent 10 years in Nashville among a songwriter’s clique that included  Lyle Lovett and  Nanci Griffith (who recorded some of his songs).  He co-wrote a few successful country tunes with Hal Ketchum, and had a small hit with “This Town” in 1993.  But as soon as his kids reached high school age, he headed back to Maine.

“If you can go to Nashville and adjust your perspective to make it a little more southern, they really like that,” says Mallett, but “country music is addressed to the working class of the south and the west.  I’m such a Yankee I had a hard time adjusting.”

“My turf is New England, it’s my own little backyard,” he says.

His home state acknowledged this in 1999, naming him one of Maine’s key figures of the 20th century. 

“That was pretty mind blowing,” he says.  “Being a musician is a fragile way to lead your life, You don’t know where the next song is coming from or the next gig, but to have something like that in your backpack is pretty nice.”

Mallett’s amassed quite a catalog of songs over the years, but as his personal tastes suggest, he’s always looking forward.  Asked to name his favorite song, he says simply that “it’s always been the next one, the one I haven’t written yet.”

Mallett expects to showcase a few of his new songs Saturday night.  No doubt he’ll also be watching in the wings when Harvard valedictorian and rising country singer/guitarist Liz Carlisle opens the show.  Carlisle made a strong impression opening for Hal Ketchum in October, so fans should welcome her return to the Opera House stage.

Local Rhythms – Happy Birthday Bistro Nouveau


There was a time not so long ago when a fine dining experience inevitably required a trip across the river. Oh, you could find a decent steak or a piece of fish in Claremont, but if you craved a dish that deserved to be photographed as well as eaten, you had to leave town.

Until Bistro Nouveau opened. Even then, it was a long shot. “Most restaurants close within three years,” says chef Doug Langevin. “You wouldn’t believe the number of people who told me this would never work here.”

But he was confident that the area was ready. “There had been a few in the past, like Annie McCassars,” he says, “and I always looked at Todafrali’s – they were a successful eatery, even if they weren’t doing what we were. “

“It’s a growing area, I knew there would be people here who would support us. I knew it was here,” he adds.

The challenge, Doug says, was “re-exciting them to come out and have dinner.”

Bistro Nouveau also bucked the odds through the support of Langevin’s family. His mother, father, sister,  and brother-in-law are all involved with the restaurant. He and wife Isabel couldn’t do it without them, he says. “Whenever something happens, there’s a family member to help out.”

This week, the restaurant celebrates its third anniversary, and shows no signs of slowing down. The locals embraced it heartily, but the surest sign of success is without a doubt the many Upper Valley and Sunapee residents who make a special trip to enjoy dishes like horseradish encrusted cod and their award-winning desserts.

On Saturday, up-and-coming singer-songwriter Brooke Brown Saracino appears, one of the many performers who’ve serenaded diners since Bistro introduced live music in late 2004. “People love the music and dinner ,” Doug says. Jason Cann provided a transcendent moment recently when he invited a friend up to sing. She started out slowly but by the third song, he says, “she was moving up and down the register like Christina Aguilera. People were clapping like crazy.”

Langevin is a local boy who got his start in the Sugar River Tech culinary arts program, and his hometown commitment is admirable. “I’m a big supporter of the tech center, I think it’s a great program,” he says.

He’s even given students there cooperative education opportunities at Bistro – the former pupil is now the teacher.

So, here’s to the faith that made it happen. Happy Birthday, Bistro Nouveau, from one of many grateful palates.

What’s out there to satisfy musical appetites in the coming days?

Thursday: Dominique Eade, Woodstock Town Hall Theatre – Fans of Diana Krall will enjoy this well-regarded chanteuse, who’s joined by talented pianist Jed Wilson. Her recent CD , “Open,” includes scintillating originals like “Open Letter” alongside astute covers like Leonard Cohen’s “In My Secret Life.” This performance is presented under the Pentangle Arts umbrella.

Friday: Nobby Reed, Middle Earth Music Hall – Another day, another delayed court date for Bradford’s music haven. Tonight, local hero Carey Lee Rush sits in with Reed, a sizzling blues guitarist who did time with the Rick Davis Band way back when. He and Rush were re-acquainted at the recent Davis Band reunion in White River Junction. Reed’s got a bit of Stevie Ray in him. It should be a hot night.

Saturday: Hexerei, Claremont Moose Lodge – A new venue for Claremont’s hardcore heroes, currently at work on a third album. Four songs are written, but they’re picking up the pace since “finally” signing a record deal . The band is relentlessly pursuing the next level of success, but they’re always top of the bill in their hometown. Hitchelfit, One Less and one more band also appear.

Sunday: A New Kind of Blue, Canoe Club – Thursday regulars at Sophie & Zeke’s, their traditional jazz and sultry vocals head to the Upper Valley for a three-hour Sunday set. Emily Lanier has a wonderfully relaxed stage manner, and the coterie of musicians she works with are smooth as maple syrup on pancakes. The band is winning new fans everywhere they go.

Monday: Little Steven’s Underground Garage Festival, Axis (Boston) – Mr. Van Zandt is a multifaceted guy. He plays with Springsteen, acts on the Sopranos, and emcees a rock and roll party with the New York Dolls headlining, supported by other rave-up stalwarts. It’s 1974 all over again. The Dolls’ recent comeback album is a pleasant surprise.

Tuesday: Jewel, Calvin Theatre – You either love her or … If you’re a fan, you cut her a ton of slack when she tries to out-wet T-shirt Fiona Apple. Jewel thanks Steve Poltz for writing her biggest hit, “You Were Meant For Me,” by bringing him along for this tour. I’m a big fan of him. Her, not so much.

Joan Osborne Successfully Switches Gears

prettylittlestranger.jpgJoan Osborne’s latest CD is equal parts  homage to the canon of Americana songwriters and an old pro courting a stunning new muse; it’s also one of the year’s best records.  Conceived in New York and executed, with the help of ace producer Steve Buckingham (Dolly Parton, Shania Twain), in Nashville, “Pretty Little Stranger” walks the country/soul line with an agility not seen since Ray Charles  discovered George Jones. 

In recent years, Osborne took a break from solo work and toured with the remaining members of the Grateful Dead.  She gives their “Brokedown` Palace” a plaintive tone missing in the original.  Patty Griffin’s “Silver Bell” continues to be the most-covered unreleased record in recent memory.  The Dixie Chicks, the Wreckers and Griffin herself have borrowed from it, though the original still languishes in A&M’s vaults.  Osborne’s version of “What You Are” is the best of the bunch.  Buckingham frames the spare precision of Griffin’s lyrics with delicate, yet majestic slide guitar and keyboard flourishes in the manner of the Eagles’ “Last Resort.”

Osborne channels Linda Ronstadt’s early Capitol releases on  a reverent reworking of Kris Kristofferson’s “Please Don’t Tell Me How The Story Ends,” a song that won Ronnie Millsap a Grammy in 1974, and “Time Won’t Tell,” with Vince Gill providing a silky harmony.  She also does a credible job with the tears-in-my-beer jukebox weeper, “Till I Get It Right.”  

The tributes are good, but Osborne’s original contributions are superlative.  “After Jane” equates friendship and lost love – “I lie awake and wonder all night long,” she sings with tantalizing ambiguity.  “Who Divided” serves up a slice of the righteous rhythm and blues which drove mid-90’s hits like “Spider Web” and “Right Hand Man,” with studio veteran Michael Rhodes’ thumping bass line, smoky organ and a snarling, pained refrain.

She duets with Alison Krauss for the pure, lilting “Holy Water.” On the rootsy, stripped-down “Shake That Devil,” Bryan Sutton’s spare banjo supplies a perfect counterpoint to the song’s  dogged determination.   There’s a bevy of first-rate studio help throughout the whole album.  Rodney Crowell, Union Station’s Dan Tyminski and steel guitar ace Dan Dugmore all pitch in.  Among the best guest appearances is Louisiana slide guitar wizard Sonny Landreth’s contribution to the funky “Dead Roses.” 

The record’s centerpiece is the title cut, a song which depicts a self-destructive race away from lost love and into the lonely city.  Suggesting the darker side of Rosanne Cash’s modern country, it brims with vivid lines like “there is a Spanish boy who also rides the A train/I want to tag him like a tiger.”  “I wonder who will the next fool be?” sings Osborne, as she prowls the streets with a seemingly unquenchable desire.

A balancing act of unleashed libido and soul-searching regret fuels “Pretty Little Stranger,” a soulful fury slouching out of New York City’s dark avenues and into the neon of Nashville.  Seldom has so vast a distance been bridged so artfully.

Local Rhythms – Tuohy Twofer at Eagle Block

eageblock.jpgThe local region’s live music pedigree really intrigued me when I moved here in 1980. I got first hand exposure to it when a convalescing Steven Tyler limped into the radio station where I worked one Saturday in 1981, a stack of reel-to-reel tapes in tow, looking to use our studio.

Aerosmith got their start in the bars around Sunapee, and band sightings are the stuff of local legend, but it was my first time. I was starry-eyed that day watching the somewhat soused rock star steal nips from a three-foot tall bottle of Portuguese wine, as he listened to rough mixes from the band’s Tokyo shows.

Josh and Joe Tuohy had their own unique view of this history; they grew up at the Shanty, a Sunapee nightspot their parents owned from the late sixties through the early nineties. Aerosmith never played there (they did, says Josh, hang out occasionally), but a lot of other local luminaries did.

It made an impression on the boys, and they’ve extended the family’s hospitality tradition to Salt Hill Pub, which they opened in 2003.

On Monday, the Tuohy brothers announced plans to work their magic closer to their old home, in Newport’s Eagle Block. It doesn’t have a name yet, but the new restaurant will feature the Irish-flavored hominess that’s worked for them so well in Lebanon.

“We’re going to transplant a lot of the Pub menu,” says Josh Tuohy, “because we think it works very well. It’s good food for the money.” They’re targeting a winter opening, but no firm date is set.

Josh says he’s excited about the prospect of running a club that’s two different venues in one, serviced by one common kitchen. That means customers looking for quiet dining will be comfortable downstairs, while the more energetic can head for the upstairs bar – which, unlike Salt Hill, will offer full cocktail service.

There are no immediate plans for live entertainment, Josh says, but knowing their history, it’s just a matter of time before the house is rocking. “Music has been a part of our success and identity,” he concedes “We’ll do it eventually, though probably not as extensively as we have at Salt Hill.”

The short life of the Eagle Tavern threw the town of Newport for a loop, so it’s great to know that this historic building, the focus of so much civic energy in the past few years, is now in good hands. I can’t wait to see what they have in store. Which reminds me – what’s happening this weekend?

Thursday: Nadine Zahr, Colby-Sawyer College – An Ani DiFranco disciple, Zahr performs songs of love and loss, with a coffeehouse earnestness. This pose certainly has lots of fans, but it’s a crowded field. Look at it this way – you could drive a lot further and spend a lot more for something less intimate. When Zahr plays, you want to look her in the eye. I like that.

Friday: Red Hot Juba, Salt Hill Pub – Zoot suit riot at the Pub! This Burlington-based band is like the Squirrel Nut Zippers with a shot of good Irish whiskey poured in the glass. They break out of the swing mode every now and then to good effect. This band best exemplifies Josh Tuohy’s willingness to take risks when booking bands. That’s why I think the Double Eagle (“2E” – get it?), or whatever they decide to call the new business, will be a hot spot.

Saturday: Richard Shindell, Chandler Music Hall – One of the great storytelling songwriters working today. If you’ve never heard him, you really must experience songs like “Last Fare of the Day,” a brilliantly human snapshot of the hours after 9/11, or “Cold Missouri Waters,” a song about a forest fire that is utterly harrowing. (*UPDATE* – Thanks, Chris Jones, for pointing out that James Keelaughan wrote this song, not Shindell) Lucy Kaplansky, Shindell’s band mate in Cry Cry Cry, opens the show and joins him later onstage.

Sunday: Dark Star Orchestra, Lebanon Opera House – A band that brings a surprise every time they take the stage. Sure, they’re a Grateful Dead cover group, but with a difference. Each show is a complete re-creation of a Dead concert from back in time. Since virtually every one of that band’s performances was committed to tape, this is not as hard as it looks. But DSO not only does the songs, they include the unique nuances of the night they’re re-making – flubs, false starts and all.

Tuesday: Bill Frisell, Hopkins Center – He’s been called the Miles Davis of the guitar, with “a signature built from pure sound and inflection; an anti-technique that’s instantly identifiable.” He’s skilled at blending into a wide range of musical tapestries, and skill that’s helped him contribute to work by artists as diverse as John Zorn , Elvis Costello, Ron Sexsmith and the L.A. Philharmonic.

“The Perfect Thing” – Steven Levy’s Gushy iPod History

perfectthingcover.jpgNot many gadgets are worthy of their own book, but the iconic iPod is no ordinary gadget.   Apple didn’t make the first MP3 player, but by transforming a good idea into what author Steven Levy calls “the perfect thing,” the computer company helped foster a revolution that is creating new industries as it disrupts and remakes old ones.

Levy’s history of the iPod is on firm footing when it studies the ways in which Apple helped legitimize a business model that the music industry viewed with a mix of suspicion and hostility.  But the company’s genius is in refinement, not invention.  Apple CEO Steve Jobs is a charismatic figure, and the best salesman of his “insanely great” vision.  Unfortunately, Levy seems willing to give him credit for things he had nothing to do with.

That’s a shame, because what Steve Jobs is good at – inspiring engineers and designers to perform fits of brilliance – is almost buried in hagiography.  Jobs’ famous “reality distortion field” has drawn in many a journalist.   In this case, much of “The Perfect Thing” becomes a story of Jobs and not the candy bar-sized device he unleashed upon the world.

With the iPod, Apple created a product that was easy to use, powered by technology that was always two or three steps ahead of the competition.  They addressed the vexing problem of getting music from the computer to device by creating a trinity of computer, software and device.  Apple wrote the ITunes software to recognize and add music to the iPod automatically.  When the iTunes Music Store was introduced in 2002, it was built into the software.  Like the elegantly simple Macintosh computer, this integration and ease of use is the key the iPod’s charm.

The iPod’s cultural impact is undeniable.  “The Perfect Thing” provides a lively account of the myriad ways it has affected the landscape of music, television and, with the advent of podcasting, journalism.

Levy made the fanciful decision to let each chapter stand on its own.  Multiple versions of the book have been released, each with a different “shuffle.”

The first chapter of each edition, “Perfect,” paints Steve Jobs as a Pied Piper of the Apocalypse, trying to “bring a little joy in to people’s lives” during the product launch shortly after 9/11.  “Origins” recognizes the true pioneers in the field, from the Sony Walkman to, in the late 1990s, Compaq’s “Personal Jukebox.”  The latter most directly influenced the iPod.

“Personal” looks at the iPod’s tendency to isolate listeners into a self-contained musical world, and the sociological implications of “[making] everyone into an extra from Village of the Damned.”  The chapter also explores the evolution of personal audio cocooning, from transistor radios to Andreas Pavel’s “Stereobelt,” a shoebox-sized behemoth designed with two headphones for shared listening – a feature initially included in the Sony Walkman.

“Download” describes the way Jobs used his personal charms to persuade everyone from Sheryl Crow to Yoko Ono that the iTunes Music Store was the last best hope for digital music.  “Cool” is Levy at his gushiest, implying that only Apple had the foresight to dream up this wonderful device and an Internet store to feed it, even as the vast majority of music is today stolen online.  This is a situation with no clear solution, but Levy fails to point out business models like Rhapsody, which might provide better legal download solutions.

The phenomenon of “Podcast” provides the book’s best moments.  Sometimes whimsical broadcasts, distributed as MP3 files, have caused what Jobs rightfully would refer to as a “tectonic shift” in both radio and television.  Apple legitimized the technology less than a year after it was introduced by incorporating it into the iTunes Music Store, and when it began offering commercial-free network television shows a few months later, turned episodes of “Desperate Housewives” into podcasts.

“The Perfect Thing” offers a mix of myth and history with unbound enthusiasm, in a well-written paean to a little Lucite box that’s arguably the most important technology of the 21st Century.

At least that’s how Steve Jobs would describe it.

Local Rhythms – For Love Or Money

celiasml.JPGAdapted from an earlier post:

If I were a decent guitarist (not even close), I’d probably be like a friend of mine, who spends his every spare minute playing in a band. Most of the time, though, he can be found providing counsel on paint and caulk selection at an area building supply store.

That’s his day job. Darn 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, you’d think the music business is an easy path to catered backstage parties, with overflowing bowls of brown M&M’s everywhere. The truth is that most musicians are like my friend, playing for love and barely breaking even after expenses like gas, meals and guitar strings are tallied up.

Thus, I was amused when asked recently why Chris Jones, the embattled owner of Middle Earth Music Hall, seemed content to operate at a loss. “What kind of person,” this person mused, “is proud that he’s never made money?”

This was no doubt in reference to news stories quoting Jones saying his club had “never been profitable.” Jones also said 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.

Jones, for the record, began promoting shows so he could see his favorite bands locally. In the last four years, he’s presented some wonderful, often unheralded, talent to music lovers everywhere.

To its’ fans, Middle Earth is a church, and what emanates from it cleanses their souls. Jones may not be making money, but believe me – he’s turning a profit.

Al Kooper created Blood, Sweat and Tears and discovered Lynyrd Skynyrd, but didn’t get rich in the process. “I came in for the love of music,” he wrote in a recent e-mail, “and when the sharks smell that, you’re through financially.”

Passion for music is all most would-be jukebox heroes need. God bless ‘em.

Now, what’s happening for music lovers this weekend?

Thursday: Open Mike Night – A place where many an aspiring musician begins, and more than a few practicing ones go to hone their craft, is the venerable talent night down at the local pub. Tonight, there’s Salt Hill, with Will Michaels (a/k/a “The Singing Bartender”) hosting, or the free-for-all at Royal Flush in Springfield. Firestones in Queechee does theirs later this month. Sunapee Coffeehouse, alas, is on indefinite hiatus while it looks for volunteers.

Friday: Madeline Peyroux & Jill Sobule, Lebanon Opera House – She channels the likes of Billie Holliday and Sarah Vaughn. A throwback to the days of smoky jazz clubs, Peyroux’s so convincing, the first time I heard her I thought it was a 78-RPM record with the sound cleaned up. Opener Jill Sobule deserves her own spotlight, with giddy, frothy thinking person’s pop.

Saturday: Stonewall, Royal Flush – Another CD release party from Exsubel Studios and producer Shamus Martin. Hopefully, they’ve worked out the kinks with their disc duplicator, which caused Ingrid’s Ruse (who Martin drums for) to hold a party two weekends ago without any product to sell. One of the tracks from Stonewall’s 3-song demo, “Blessings For Pearls,” is up on my blog for anyone wanting to give the band a listen.

Sunday: Celia Sings Sinatra, Canoe Club – Phil Celia led a spirited set the other night in Bradford, sticking to a funky groove some of the time, and mining his singer-songwriter heart of gold as well. Tonight it’s something completely different, when Phil joins the Bob Merrill Trio to play some silky smooth evening music, with arrangements by Nelson Riddle, Count Basie and others.

Tuesday: Peter Rowan & the Rowan Brothers, Iron Horse – Talk about genre hopping! This guitarist played with Bill Monroe early on, fronted a band (Earth Opera) that opened for the Doors in the 60’s, and wrote hits for New Riders of the Purple Sage, one of the first outlaw country bands. Tonight, it’s acoustic Americana with siblings Chris and Lorin.

Wednesday: Broken Social Scene, Lupo’s – It’s a long drive to Providence, but this Toronto collective is worth it. They remind me of a more upbeat Joy Division, if that’s possible. The personnel include core duo Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning and whoever’s in town. They closed the recent Virgin Festival with part-time members Emily Haines (Metric) and Amy Millan (Stars).

Finally: Two Claremont fine dining establishments now welcome every turning of the calendar page with the same familiar faces. Al Alessi handles first Friday chores at Sophie & Zeke’s, while Jason Cann greets each month’s leadoff Saturday at Bistro Nouveau.

Regina Carter – Guerrilla Promotion

carter.jpgYesterday I made my monthly pilgrimage to Newbury Comics, mainly to purchase Van Morrison’s first official DVD. It contains his 1974 and 1980 performances at the Montreaux Jazz Festival.

While there, I also snagged a copy of “Live Your Life With Verve: Fall Into The Groove,” a sampler of the latest releases from the legendary jazz label. Newbury typically gives away these label promotional collections, even if you don’t make a purchase.

I was immediately taken by “St. Louis Blues” as performed by violinist Regina Carter, with Carla Cook on vocals. Not being a jazz authority, I didn’t recognize the name. I did a lttle research and found that she’d played violin on Madeline Peyroux’s debut CD, and has worked with Mary J. Blige, Billy Joel AND Dolly Parton – not to mention brilliant (but usual suspects) Wynton Marsalis and Cassandra Wilson.

Talk about being unbound by rules. Here’s what Ms.Carter has to say about her instrument:

I think a lot of people look at the violin and they get a little nervous. They have a stereotype of what the violin is – very high, kind of shrill-sounding with long notes, and a lot of vibrato. It doesn’t have to be that at all, it can be a very fiery persuasive instrument and that’s how I like to use it. I don’t think of the music trying to fit the violin, or how to make the violin work in this music. For me, it just does. I’m not playing it as a violin. Instead of being so melodic, which I can be, I tend to use the instrument in more of a rhythmic way, using vamp rhythms or a lot of syncopated rhythms, approaching it more like a horn player does. So, I don’t feel that I have a lot of limitations – I feel like I can do anything.

I immediately went and got “I’ll Be Seeing You: A Sentimental Journey,” her tribute to jazz’s foremost era of discovery and evolution. The 1920s through the 1940s were a time when performers like Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong began defining an art form still in the process of being born.

What’s brilliant about jazz is that it’s still being born, as Carter’s reworking of W.C. Handy’s classic proves. With “St. Louis Blues,” she takes her fiddle on a hayride to the other side of the tracks, to a shotgun shack down by the river, and in the process inspires her accompanists to also take their instruments to uncommon places.

I’ve never heard a clarinet infused with old-time country, but Paquito D’Rivera sure does it well. Gil Goldstein’s spicy accordion is in entirely new territory as well. It’s amazing.

You’ve gotta hear it, so damn the consequences, here’s a link. If the copyright cops find me, I’ll take my lumps, but please understand this is music promotion in the era where the radio powers won’t touch an artist like Regina Carter. I’m doing them a favor, a virtual version of their neat little sampler. They should be thanking me.
Why can’t the labels get a grip on this concept and make it work?

Buy the record, which is filled with many more gems.