Local Rhythms – Middle Earth’s Dark Days Ending

chrisjonessml.jpgFive months filled with lawsuits and countersuits, delayed court dates and mounting attorney bills haven’t made Chris Jones an optimist. But the Middle Earth Music Hall owner was buoyant enough last Monday to declare that “jackhammer season is over” for the Bradford club.

The reason for his cautious jubilation was an Orange County District Court decision handing Shiloh’s Restaurant back to landlord Vincent Pacilio for non-payment of rent. For the time being, Jones can concentrate on what he does best – bringing great music to the basement establishment he’s run for the past five years.

“We’re not done,” say Jones. “I expect a suit for failure of the business,” a prospect that mostly upsets him because “it will hurt the landlord.” But, he says, “the threat of an injunction to shut us down is off the table.”

This battle may be won, but because Shiloh’s owners have ten days to file an appeal, Jones is reluctant to declare an end to the war. So the legal defense fundraisers and the milk cans by the bar filled with dollar bills will be around a while longer.

“I don’t believe it’s over, and the best defense is a good offense,” Jones says.

The good news for music fans is that the court victory has cleared the way for Middle Earth to firm up several tentative dates. The coming months will welcome performances from Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem, Cheryl Wheeler, banjo master Tony Trischka, Garnet Rogers and Chris Smither. With the legal cloud hanging over them, Jones couldn’t afford to commit to shows as far out as May (Arbo).

He remains wary of Victory in Jesus Ministries, and their leader, whom Jones cites as the primary force behind the suit. “Knowing (David) Lund, he’ll appeal,” he says, adding “if you give him a crack, no matter how small, he’ll stick his foot in it.”

Overall, his outlook’s good. “In the long run, we’ll come out on top,” says Jones. “But it’s time-consuming, and expensive. I just got the bill today.”

He’s most heartened by the support he’s received from the music community. Bands like Amity Front, Boston’s Session Americana and Nobby Reed all performed to raise much-needed cash.

“But the publicity has been priceless,” Jones says. “I’ve seen a lot of new faces in here over the past few months.”

What priceless toe-tapping experiences await music fans this weekend?

Thursday: Harvey Reid, Four Corners Grille – Missing from the area music scene this fall, the Flying Goose Music series is, according to the restaurant’s website, a one-night affair this year. Lucy Kaplansky, however, is advertising a show there next month. Reid is an acoustic guitar master, and along with wife Joyce Andersen, he made a great Christmas record last year. He and Andersen perform selections from it tonight.

Friday: Junk in the Trunk, Salt Hill Pub – Richie Cortese has been an Upper Valley fixture for a long time now, and his latest combo was quite well received when they played outdoors at Sunapee in the summer. This is the first Salt Hill appearance for Junk in the Trunk, which plays classic rock and boogie driven by Cortese’s singing, which can bend the treetops.

Saturday: Yer Mother’s Onion, Seven Barrels – I caught these guys at a pretty crazy party recently, just across the Unity line. Everyone was in costume, and let’s just say I’m impressed with the depth and breadth of the subculture in these parts. I’m also impressed by this band, who play a few originals, but can also knock out powerful covers by everyone from Carlos Santana to Cake – check out their take of “Building A Religion.”

Monday: Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, NBC – This is a well-written drama, not a musical performance show. If you’re all about music and nothing else, you can wait until the last 10 minutes of the episode to watch a superlative performance by a band of New Orleans horn players led by 20-year old Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews. Their version of “O Holy Night” has replaced “Little Saint Nick” as my favorite Christmas song.

Tuesday: Toby Lightman, Iron Horse – One of the reasons I think the Grammies are a joke is that Mariah Carey is still getting nominations, and truly soulful singers like Lightman are overlooked. She’s made two excellent records, the most recent of which, “Bird on a Wire,” runs the gamut from charged up gospel to passionate torch songs. Her time will come, and when it does, Grammy will probably pick the wrong album to honor.

Wednesday: Carlos Ocasio, Canoe Club – Frontman for Gusano and other area bands, Carlos stretches out at Canoe, playing restrained, intelligent blues and showing off his elegant guitar style. As always, get a seat near to the stage if you want to listen closely.

Grammy Bloat

grammy.jpgWhat would happen if all the entertainment award shows took their cues from the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences? One shudders to think. Instead of a single Best Picture award, an Oscar each would go to a drama, comedy, musical, sex farce, dramatized biography and a roman à clef.

If you don’t believe it, then consider the 2006 Grammy nominees. The ballot alone is 56 pages long. There are 51 different fields, comprising 108 separate awards.

Looking over the voluminous document, some questions immediately spring to mind. Why is Hawaii the only state with its own category? There’s an award for Tejano, but that’s Tex-Mex, which is not the same as Texas. Besides, there’s also a Best Mexican Music award, which doesn’t seem fair.

Perhaps it’s payback for all that 700-mile fence talk.

Another burning mystery – just what is a “pop” record, anyway? That catch-all field includes one prize each for male, female and duo/group vocals – in addition to collaborations and instrumentals. The Big “Pop” Tent includes everyone from Bruce Hornsby to the Black Eyed Peas, Pink and Enya.

Enya?

The real trick, it would seem, is NOT getting nominated for one of the things, right?

Hardly. Take, for example, Record of the Year and Song of the Year; four songs are nominated for BOTH awards. One of those, “Taking the Long Way” by the Dixie Chicks, also has a shot at Best Country Song. The Academy was apparently unaware that nobody, least of all the Dixie Chicks ,considers them a country band anymore.

What’s most offensive about this year’s Grammy class is that, with thousands of possible picks for 540 nomination slots, the same names keep coming up over and over. Emblematic of this sorry state of affairs is Sheryl Crow’s Best Female Pop Vocal nomination – for a cover of an old James Taylor song (“You Can Close Your Eyes”) included on a record which can only be bought at Starbucks coffee stores.

Anybody wondering about the music business’s elitist snob image need look no further than this. Crow, by the way, also picked up a Best Pop Vocal Collaboration nomination for her duet with Sting (“Always On Your Side”).

I expect that “Best Duet With Sting” will eventually become a standalone category.

Peter Frampton, who Grammy pretty much ignored during his Seventies heyday, is nominated for an instrumental cover of a Soundgarden song. I suppose that’s better than the Best Heavy Metal nomination Pat Boone got a few years back.

Gnarls Barkley is up for Record of the Year, and is also nominated in the R&B category. But the kicker is that the band’s infectious hit “Crazy” is in line for Best Alternative Album.

Alternative to what?

Bob Dylan’s roots-fortified “Modern Times” disc gets an out-of-place nod for Best Rock song (“Someday Baby”), where he keeps company with Beck and John Mayer, along with a Neil Young protest song and a Tom Petty record that no one outside the industry has even heard.

More just for Dylan, perhaps, is his nomination for Best Contemporary Folk/Americana album. That category is full of many “don’t know what to call them, but they deserve a statue” contenders – like the Mark Knopfler/Emmylou Harris collaboration (“All the Roadrunning”), Rosanne Cash’s meditation on family and death (“Black Cadillac”) and insider darling Guy Clark (“Workbench Songs”). Jackson Browne rounds out the list with a career retrospective (“Live Acoustic Volume 1”), but after ignoring everything from “Doctor My Eyes” to “Running on Empty,” why does Grammy bother?

That’s the Academy’s biggest sin – they’re always at least one or two years behind the curve. There’s a record nominated (“Travelin’ Through”) that lost an Oscar bid nearly a year ago – in other words, a song made in 2005 is being considered on a 2007 awards show.

That they try to compensate for their myopia by puffing up the ceremony with awards for things like for box set design, liner notes and “Best Spoken Word” release – a euphemism for books on tape – only makes things worse.

It’s utterly fitting that this year’s show, to be broadcast February 7, 2007, will be hosted by faux newsman Stephen Colbert. Colbert, of course, coined 2006’s “word of the year.” That word, in case you didn’t know, is “truthiness” – defined as “something that seems true because an individual wants it to be.”

The reality-battered record industry must love the notion that there are 108 deserving artists on this year’s pathetic list of nominees, and surely believe that all that precious metal is a harbinger of strong times ahead.

The whole idea reeks of truthiness.

Today’s Free Download – “O Holy Night”

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Finally, NBC has posted an MP3 of “O Holy Night,” the amazing “Studio 60 On the Sunset Strip” performance by the Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews-led New Orleans horn band, which aired last Monday.

The Studio 60 “Christmas Show” episode repeats on December 18, and it’s worth watching for more than the music.

The dialogue is sharper, character development more focused and (very important to critical detractors of the show in its early days) the comedy in the fictitious variety show is much, much better. The “Dateline: To Catch A Predator” sketch was funnier than anything on SNL last night.

I do hope they keep this show on the air. Matthew Perry’s character is so much more satisfying (to me, anyway) than his one-dimensional “Friends” role. Bradley Whitford is always good, and the relationship developing between him and Amanda Peet is a good story move. I’m waiting for Steve Weber’s network chairman to throw a monkey wrench into that one. Whose baby is it, really?

Back to the music – this song is even more beautiful without the dialogue. Thanks, NBC. If the sole legacy of “Studio 60” were just “O Holy Night” and the shout-out to New Orleans music it engendered, that would be more than a lot of shows I could name.

Download it here. Right click and save is best.

Note: NBC took down the file, so I’m engaging in a little guerrilla promotion to ensure this song is heard.  Send a donation to Tipitina’s Foundation to show your gratitude.

Today’s Free Stream – New Norah Jones

2006-11-17_norah.jpgNorah Jones has a new album set for release early next year, and if the sultry “Thinking About You” is any indication, it will fit well with her first two records.   Norah doesn’t break any new ground with the song – the horn section’s a bit punchier, but the slight, almost indiscernible keyboard noodling and “how could you leave me here alone when all I want is to be with you?” lyrics will be familar to longtime Norah fans.

And no doubt welcome, as well.  Co-produced by Jones and longtime bassist Lee Alexander, “Not Too Late” arrives January 30, 2007.

Studio 60’s Gift – An Instant Christmas Classic

neworleans.jpgTelevision is certainly an upside-down world. Reality TV is anything but real, and scripted shows often provide the most true glimpses of the world we live in.

Case in point: Monday’s “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” episode, simply entitled “The Christmas Show.”

One subplot concerned the quietly organized sick-out by musicians employed by the fictional “Studio 60” show as well as the real “Tonight Show” – bandleader Kevin Eubanks makes a cameo appearance. Executive Producer Danny Tripp (played by Bradley Whitford) deduces that the job action is being done to provide substitute work for homeless New Orleans musicians, “any of which could play our band under the table,” says Danny, to provide them with money and a path to the L.A. Musician’s union.

Danny decides to gather up as many of these refugees as he can and give them a spotlight performance on the show. The band, led by the amazing Troy “Trombone Shorty”Andrews, plays a jazz version of “O Holy Night” with a stark black and white photo montage of the New Orleans reconstruction effort as a backdrop.

Their performance literally had me choking back tears. New Orleans jazz is a kind of judo – it seems so simple and unadorned, yet so few musicians can play it with authority. One sustained note (where a vocalist would sing “O Night, O Night Divine”) from Andrews’ trumpet communicated such an powerful range of emotions. Sorrow, hope, despair, rage, resolution – all unmistakably articulated.

“This is America’s music,” his trumpet spoke, “and it is worth saving.”

All good television fiction, but here’s the catch. NBC’s website proudly promoted a tie-in with Tipitina’s Foundation, an organization “dedicated to helping artists recover from Hurricane Katrina and preserving the cultural traditions of New Orleans.”

Tiptina seems like a worthy group, and I’m pleased to see NBC blurring the lines between the ostensibly real and make-believe worlds. For those of us who learned about prejudice on “All In the Family,” it makes complete sense.

You can see and hear “O Holy Night” on YouTube, and a free audio version is supposed to be up on iTunes soon.

UPDATE: NBC lawyered away the YouTube version, so you have to go to their website, click on the “watch the musical highlight” link, and wait through a tepid “Nacho Libre” advert in order to see it. That’s all fine, but NBC’s version is chopped at the end, not faded. Quite inferior. One further note: the “Christmas Story” episode re-airs December 18.

Local Rhythms – “Love” Is All You Need

beatleslove.jpgLike many Beatles fans, I reacted cynically to news of the recently released  “Love.”  Why should I care what Cirque du Soleil, which commissioned the work for a show at the Las Vegas Mirage Hotel, did with my favorite Beatles songs?   

I also couldn’t see the point of once again repackaging familiar music.  Why not  put out the band’s full length 1966 Budokan performance on DVD, or release some of the long-rumored Beatles music that never made it to disc?   Heck, a CD version of “Live at the Hollywood Bowl” would be nice. 

Then I heard “Love” and everything changed. 

The record (also available in DVD-Audio) is an archaeologist’s excavation done by a punk with P. Diddy’s ethics; it’s as if he dug up the crown jewels and decided to pierce his tongue with the best diamond in the pile.   George Martin and his son Giles share production credits, but there’s little doubt in my mind that this is the youngster’s work.  Giles was born the year the Beatles broke up, and by all accounts didn’t listen to the band much in his youth. 

It shows – only an un-churched soul would have the temerity to combine the crashing guitar start of “Hard Day’s Night” together with Ringo’s only drum solo (“The End”) as an intro to “Get Back,” one of the few Fab Four tracks that Sir George didn’t  produce.   It’s like Danger Mouse’s notorious “Grey Album” sans Jay-Z. 

Completists will have a field day picking out the musical snippets tossed like garnish on a gourmet dish by Giles.  There’s the French horn of “Penny Lane” submerged in “Glass Onion,” or the hand drums from “Within You Without You” (part of its own mash-up with “Tomorrow Never Knows”)  woven together with the sitar of “The Inner Light.” 

“Love” isn’t all clever stunts, though.  Sir George starkly scores the earliest version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” and the father-son duo lovingly trace “Strawberry Fields Forever” from rough demo origins, through early takes to finished master.

Tracks presented mostly intact – “Lady Madonna,” “Back in the U.S.S.R.” and “I Want To Hold Your Hand” – are noticeably cleaned up to reveal the band’s stellar musicianship, in particular Paul McCartney’s bass playing.   

“Love” is both a puzzle for longtime fans to solve, and a perfect way to expose the Beatles to a new generation.

So what’s on tap this weekend? 

Thursday:  Jason Cann, Brown’s Tavern –  A talented guitarist who’s holding down a regular First Saturday gig at Bistro Nouveau, as well as two nights weekly at this Ascutney nightspot.  Things are jumping on the mountain, even if the natural snow hasn’t arrived.  Cann’s songbook ranges from the Grateful Dead to Dan Loggins, and goes down as easy as a cold Long Trail.

Friday: ÓhAnleigh, Salt Hill Pub –  This northern Vermont trio plays traditional Irish music with youthful verve.  “Ain’t It Bloody Well Grand to Be Irish (And Living in the USA)” is one of my favorites, name-checking Boston and celebrating the Americanized Irish.  They’re already booked for March 17, 2007, but you can order a pint and enjoy them tonight.  Anytime’s good to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day at the Pub.   

Saturday:  The Alchemystics, Seven Barrel Brewery – From Northampton, a band described as “a marriage between dub reggae and hip-hop” lands in West Lebanon. They have a nice, clean rhythmic sound, and based on their MySpace tracks don’t seem like bling and violence-obsessed rappers.  Frontman Phaze is leaving the band next month, so this is a final chance to see the original lineup.

Sunday:  Gandalf Murphy & The Slambovian Circus of Dreams, Middle Earth – Two shows (4 and 8 PM) by the gypsy rockers, with stellar support from Sloan Wainwright (Loudon’s younger sister) and the neo-folk Kennedys.  Sarah and Pete Kennedy deserve a set of their own, and Sloan’s no slouch.  You already know how great Gandalf’s gang is, so I’d suggest that this is one of the better entertainment bargains you’re going to see this year. 

Tuesday: Winterpills, Iron Horse – Northampton’s Beatles perform a benefit for Safe Passage, who help provide programs for child victims of domestic violence.  Winterpills  recently laid down several new tracks for an upcoming (February ’07) album.   They’ve also put together a fun little YouTube video blog.  Also on the bill are the Fawns, and June Millington (of Fanny and the Slammin’ Babes).

Wednesday: Ted Mortimer and Linda Boudreault, Canoe Club –  The husband and wife team has a pretty full calendar this month.  In addition to playing Hanover’s finest downtown restaurant, they’re also appearing at Sophie & Zeke’s in Claremont Friday (December 8), where their band (Dr. Burma) headlines an end of the year party December 29.  Ted has a just-so touch on the Gibson Jazz Guitar, and Linda sings like a dream.