Local Rhythms – Music Won’t Die Unless We Let It

b4md.jpgIt’s best to begin at the end of “Before the Music Dies,” recently released on DVD, to understand the real point of this flawed but well-meaning documentary. The music business, or more importantly, the assumptions about making it in the music business, have changed irrevocably.

“We don’t need to panic,” says Dave Matthews, “we just need to teach our children well.”

This thought sits at odds with the dismal portrait painted during much of the film – radio stations with narrow playlists, record companies who commoditize music, and lobotomized fans who seemingly could care less.

The tension between the labor of art and the reward of celebrity, what Branford Marsalis terms “the massive state of delusion where the idea of what you are is more important than you actually being that,” is certainly a problem. Music, however, is fine.

“If your goal is money and fame, there’s a lot of easier ways to do it – go on Fear Factor,” says Matthews pithily. “If you want to play music, all you gotta do is play it.”

“Before the Music Dies” is full of performers like Correo Aereo, the Latin duo whose greatest success was getting a song in a movie soundtrack, or critic’s darling Doyle Bramhall II, who can’t sell records but gets to trade licks with Eric Clapton. “I’m in the best place I’ve ever been in my life,” says Bramhall.

Bruce Flohr was a VP at Geffen Records; he left after the label cut Bramhall loose, and now works for a smaller company. “I was in the record business, now I’m in the music business,” says Flohr.

Radio conglomerate Clear Channel is dutifully trotted out as the face of music’s problems, which reminded me of “Exploding,” Stan Cornyn’s excellent history of the Warner Music Group. WMG started out being run by music people and ended in the hands of people like David Geffen, who, said one colleague, “would dive into a barrel of pus to come up with a nickel in his teeth.”

Why, asked Cornyn, should the priorities of one business – radio – drive the actions of another – music? It’s something to consider before casting about for blame. While it’s true that, as “B4MD” points out, “the institutions that supported yesterday’s artist are gone,” it’s also a fact that “there are now more and better tools for making music, and more avenues for distribution than anyone ever imagined.”

“Don’t be fooled, be you,” says the surprisingly erudite Erykah Badu. “Don’t let anybody infiltrate your dream.”

Go out and make some noise. The record business may be tanking, but the market for music has never been better. Be sure to tell your kids – they’ll listen. My 21 year-old son is the reason I found out about “B4MD” – he gave it to me for Christmas (it’s a viral video on the college circuit). I’ve taught him well.

What can I teach you about live music in the coming days?

Thursday: Ed Robertson, Okemo Resort – Robertson’s band, Barenaked Ladies, is a prime example of music’s future. Fans could to purchase and remix tracks from their most recent project, also available in a multitude of formats. Tonight, the singer takes a break from the BNL tour – they sat in with the Boston Pops last month – for a solo après-ski party. The show’s free, though lift ticket holders get admission priority.

Friday: Al Alessi/Bill Wightman Duo, Sophie & Zeke’s – Al is the new heartthrob of Pleasant Street. With Bill on the piano, it’s a magical sound. The pair play an array of standards and modern pop classics; the sound’s a perfect complement to a good meal, or if you wait for the second set, an upbeat way to enjoy an aperitif, dessert, or one of the restaurant’s newfangled martinis (featuring ingredients like pomegranate liqueur and currant juice).

Saturday: A City Divide, Red Elephant – I got an email from this band recently that said, “all those other groups you write about are good, but we’re the future of music.” Or words to that effect. They cite the Cure and Smashing Pumpkins as influences; there’s two original songs on their MySpace page that are pretty sharp – wish I could print the URL. Red Elephant is a teens-only club in Opera House Square.

Sunday: Celia Sings Sinatra, Canoe Club – Phil Celia’s credible tribute to one of America’s finest musicians with superb accompaniment. Phil and the Bob Merrill Trio perform a repertoire of classic Sinatra from the 1960’s featuring arrangements by Nelson Riddle, Count Basie, and others from that period.

Tuesday: Irish Sessions, Salt Hill – Still one of the best ways to unwind after work. Dave Loney leads a revolving band of fiddlers, pickers and pennywhistlers. Their traditional sound wafts through the pub like the smell of good cooking (SHP has that, too).

Bellows Falls Bounces Back

boccellis.jpgFor Charlie Hunter, 2007 was supposed to be about painting and trains. The Bellows Falls impresario handed major responsibilities for the four-day Roots on the River festival to a new manager. He made plans to run his downtown art gallery, and his concert production business was going to be limited to organizing a few music and rails excursions. Other than that, he was going to take it easy.

“Everything is cyclical, and we had a really great run for a while,” says Hunter.

Hunter and his company, Flying Under Radar, played a key role in Bellows Falls’ recent renaissance. Beginning six years ago with shows at Oona’s Restaurant, and by 2004 in the more capacious Hotel Windham lobby, the sleepy village was transformed into a Mecca for music fans. The downtown filled with galleries, funky stores and other diversions.

With the one-two punch of the Windham’s July 2006 closing and a fire two months later that destroyed Oona’s, things looked bleak – but not over. PK’s Tavern continued its weekly open mike night, and Julie Waters’ “Second Sunday Song Circle” at the Exner Block is still going strong. But for a town used to big names like Chris Smither, Amy Rigby and Tanya Donnelly (who recorded a live album at the Windham in 2004), it wasn’t quite the same.

So a one-two counterpunch – the aforementioned Hunter and restaurateur Sharon Boccelli, who opened “Boccelli’s on the Canal” café and deli last spring – responded. Boccelli also runs an auction house in the space adjoining her restaurant, and she approached Hunter about using it for shows.

“I didn’t want to see all the momentum that we’d built up [with live music] disappear,” says Hunter. “So I came out of retirement.”

This Friday, a joint appearance by Jesse Peters and Josh Maiocco, dubbed the “Saxtons River Smackdown,” kicks off the “Bellows Falls: Where Live Music Lives” series. Peters, a singer and guitar player, headlined one of the Windham’s final shows, and was a sort of one-man house band at Springfield’s Morningstar Café before it closed. Maiocco took over the helm at PK’s after serving as lead guitarist for the much-missed Ingrid’s Ruse.

Other Boccelli’s shows in the works include a (tentative) February 1 appearance by roots rocker Dave Alvin and his band, the Guilty Men. Also “close to 100 percent confirmed,” says Hunter, are upcoming sets from the Hunger Mountain Boys, Richard Shindell, Tom Russell, James Keelaughan, Australian guitarist Jeff Lang, and the 2nd Annual Chris Whitley Memorial show on March 3, which will feature the late singer/songwriter’s brother Dan Whitley.

Hunter has committed five months to the effort and helped secure seed money from the Bellows Falls Downtown Development Alliance. “They wanted to see live music keep going,” he says.

Hunter adds that he’s grooming someone to take over promotion responsibilities when he steps aside. “There’s a guy in town who is very eager to learn about how one presents stuff, and he’s sort of serving as my intern. My hope is that after May, he can step up to the plate. “

“But I’ve got my old team in place,” says Hunter.

The group running things, including stage manager Patrick LeBlanc, will be familiar to most Windham fans. “We’ve got such a rich, deep talent pool, we’re really lucky,” says Hunter. Local record producer (and former Ingrid’s Ruse drummer) Seamus Martin will handle the sound, assisted by Maiocco on the nights he’s not playing.

The pairing of Boccelli’s and a re-formed Flying Under Radar makes complete sense, Hunter explained in a recent press release. “It’s a natural. Sharon serves great food, has a beer and wine license, is really into supporting local events … how could we not do some shows there?”

“What’s great about the space is that its capacity is 100; the Windham was 49,” Hunter added Wednesday. “There’s no way we could have done Dave Alvin at the Windham, the ticket would have to be 60 bucks.”

You can’t keep a good town down, and this Friday Bellows Falls resumes its role as an area cultural magnet. About that, the village’s strongest proponent is more than effusive.

“We’re gonna kick serious butt,” says Hunter.