Local Rhythms – The Season of Giving Back to Music

lrsmallxmas.jpgThis is time of year when “we give to our relations,” as Jackson Browne sings in “The Rebel Jesus” (one of my essential holiday songs). We also do what we can for the less fortunate among us. Locally, there are many deserving charities providing food, shelter and other comforts to those in need. Lately, however, my heart, mind and checkbook have been reaching beyond our borders to the national community of music.

More than a year after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans has yet to completely recover. The bustling French Quarter, spared by most of the storm’s ravages, is open for business, but the soul of the district is still in many ways an American Diaspora, scattered across the country in search of a way home.

“Most musicians don’t have anywhere to live in the city of New Orleans,” says Bill Taylor. Taylor heads Tipitina’s Foundation, a charitable organization named for the famous uptown jazz club which for the past five years has provided relief the Big Easy musical community. In the wake of Katrina, Tipitina’s work to preserve what Taylor terms “a national shrine” grew exponentially.

The New Orleans homeless problem received national exposure recently on NBC’s “Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip,” with a storyline featuring a fictitious group of displaced horn players. The network also included a Tipitina’s write-up on its website.

“All the young musicians are gone,” laments Gregory Davis, and many New Orleans clubs must look to places like Atlanta and Memphis for talent. Davis’s Dirty Dozen Brass Band released a Tipitina’s benefit CD recently; so did Fats Domino, the piano legend who was rescued after the hurricane.

In the words of one writer, jazz is “the purest expression of American democracy; a music built on individualism and compromise, independence and cooperation.” What we do to revive New Orleans, the birthplace of this great musical export, says a lot about our national character.

That’s why this year I’m thinking locally, but acting globally. Tipitina’s (www.tipitinasfoundation.org) isn’t the only organization helping to rebuild New Orleans. Habitat for Humanity and the Jazz Foundation are also hard at work.

As you open your gifts this holiday, and prepare donations to soup kitchens, shelters and other deserving groups, think of New Orleans, a true symbol of our cultural heritage. There beats the heart of America’s music – it deserves to be preserved for future generations.

Now, on to the local scene:

Thursday: Social Club Orchestra, Middle Earth Music Hall – A group of area musicians get together to “celebrate community and the season in song,” led by Bradford’s own Don Sinclair. The brainchild of club regular Paul Gardner, it features Tom & Gabby Masterson, Ruthless Geezers Peter Mallory & Brian Emerson and many others. Sauron is not vanquished from Middle Earth; thus, proceeds from the show will benefit the club’s legal defense fund.

Friday: Sensible Shoes, Skunk Hollow Tavern – Great to see this band back in the listings. They have a knack for picking great cover songs, by the likes of Otis Redding and the Beatles, that haven’t been played to death. A five piece band will be a tight fit for this tiny Hartland Four Corners venue, but it will still be a jumpin’ good time. Sensible Shoes is currently working on a CD of original tunes, which is very good news indeed.

Saturday: Play Dead, Royal Flush Diner – Bring a toy for a needy child and admission is free to this event, which features Grateful Dead songs by this well regarded tribute band. Open mike impresarios and erstwhile Dead fans the Kind Buds also appear; they will likely sit in for a few songs.

Sunday: Christmas Music On Television As frequent readers have no doubt deduced, I love holiday music. On television, the country channels have the best selection, with an Alan Jackson’s “Precious Memories” gospel special and “Christmas at the Tennessee” on GAC. The latter features Deana Carter and one of my favorite newcomers, Julie Roberts. But best of all is CMT’s “Christmastime is Here” with Ricky Skaggs, Alison Krauss and the Whites.

Tuesday: Greenleaf & Kaplan Duo, Canoe Club – Alan Greenleaf is a Northeast Kingdom farmer and a self-taught musician who has released a series of charming records about his life. He’s accompanied by Jonathan Kaplan on piano for an evening of classic folk and blues, interspersed with plenty of country wit.

Wednesday: Trans-Siberian Orchestra, DCU Center (Worcester) From the ashes of a has-been heavy metal band rose the most spectacular holiday extravaganza ever mounted. It must be seen to be believed. With 24 different musicians surrounded by smoke, lasers and fire, TSO is part rock opera and part spiritual journey. If, two days after Christmas, you’re still in the mood, this is for you.

Toby Lightman Shines At Iron Horse

lightmansmall.jpgMost of the crowd at the Iron Horse Tuesday felt that if Toby Lightman had auditioned for “American Idol” back in 2002, Kelly Clarkson would still be hawking Red Bull and waiting tables in Texas.

But the singer-songwriter, who released her first record in 2004 (“Little Things”), has chosen a more methodical path to success. Her sophomore disc, “Bird On A Wire,” came out last July. Lightman says her focus now is “definitely different – I know a lot more than I did before. My approach this time was to do a lot more grassroots touring, I didn’t really do that the first time around.”

Wearing a black Doors T-shirt and accompanied by guitarist Court Clement, Lightman played stripped-down selections from “Little Things” and “Bird on a Wire” during a Tuesday night show which exhibited the many elements that inform her sound. She added improvisational jazz touches to the bridge of set opener “Alone” and laid down a funky groove for “Coming Back In.”

Lightman transformed the syncopated album version of “Slipping” into a spare, sultry rhythm that would have done Norah Jones proud. “I do a lot of angry songs,” she joked by way of introducing the sweet and hopeful “Better,” a song she wrote for her sister upon the birth of her son.

But the growling “River” showed Toby Lightman at her righteously indignant best. “The lights are dim, are you gonna come crying to me?” she sang, deftly trading licks with Clement (a seasoned sideman who has worked with Griffin House and Jessica Lofbomm).

The guitarist’s inclusion definitely helped to spice up the show. Lightman covered Jim Croce’s “Operator” a few years back; she and Clement worked up a version of it in the dressing room prior to the show that was among the most well-received numbers of the night. The song oozed soul, as Lightman came back around at the end for another go at the chorus that took the 70’s soft-rock classic to new heights. If Donnie Hathaway had ever gotten his hands on it, it would have sounded like this.

Between her first and second records, Lightman said backstage before the show, “I’d drifted from pop to more classic soul. I was really enraptured by the organic nature and space of people like Bill Withers and Sly and the Family Stone. There doesn’t need to be so much going on, there’s just a vibe and it’s a great song. You don’t need the tracks.”

The shift to a leaner sound began during the “Little Things” tour, says Lightman. “There’s a lot of programming on the record that was really hard to replicate live.”

Last year, she headed back to the studio with Bill Bottrell and Patrick Leonard (Sheryl Crow, Madonna, Elton John) for “Bird on a Wire.” “This one was very different that the first one,” Lightman says. “Everything was done with live takes. I had never really done that before, but I’m a lot more confident in my voice and playing my guitar.”

That confidence comes across clearly onstage, despite Lightman’s occasional self-deprecating remark. “We suck!” she exclaimed at one point as she fiddled with a guitar tuning. But tunes like “Overflowing,” Holding Me Down” and the forthcoming single “My Sweet Song” gave the lie to such musings. Lightman closed her set with the Ella Fitzgerald-inspired “Sleigh Ride” – another number worked up pre-show – and sent the crowd happily into the night to spread the word about her steadily rising star.