Local Rhythms – The Arts Corridor

ctvalleyhwy.jpgFor months, I drove past the “Lounge Opening Soon” sign in front of Imperial Garden Restaurant on Washington Street, and didn’t give it a whole lot of thought. But right around Thanksgiving, word got out that the 3,000-square foot bar adjacent to Claremont’s newest Chinese/Japanese buffet was about to become my favorite kind of place – a live music venue.

Helping to fill a void left with Coyote Creek’s closing, the Imperial Lounge has begun presenting bands on a semi-regular basis. Manager Sandy Yang says Roadhouse brought a good crowd during the bar’s opening weekend, and they’ll be back on January 27. Also scheduled are Mark and Deb, a pop duo on January 20.

Tomorrow, the erstwhile Yer Mother’s Onion plays at the Imperial, with a five dollar cover.

So far the music has worked out well, says Yang. Local reggae band Saylyn had a good night on New Year’s Eve in spite of the freezing rain. Longtime area karaoke hosts “Ron & Cher” bring a good crowd Wednesdays, and there are plans to add a DJ for dancing, possibly tied to a Ladies Night promotion, on Thursdays.

At the other end of Claremont, the Moose Lodge on Broad Street has opened its space to the impresarios of Hexerei; the band has already presented two shows there, and everyone involved says the Moose is a big step up from the Knights Hall, the last hard rock venue in town. The next show is tomorrow, with Hexerei, Soul Octane, Apathetiq and A City Divide (one of the more interesting new young bands on the scene).

Last week, much was made of Bellows Falls’ return to prominence, with Boccelli’s opening to a packed house. Down the road in Charlestown, the Heritage is bringing in some first-rate talent, like Pete Pidgeon & Arcoda February 10. Newport’s Opera House is still swinging, with Al Alessi & Bill Wightman January 20; at some point, I’m sure Josh Tuohy will start booking bands at Salt Hill II .

Claremont isn’t Music City just yet, but with occasional singer-songwriter at Bistro Nouveau, regular weekly jazz at Sophie & Zeke’s, the odd Hullaballoo set, big shows at the Opera House and under-21 nights at the Red Elephant, things are looking up. McGee’s downtown is still doing karaoke on Thursdays and Fridays, though live music there is dormant. The Moose and the Imperial, however, are adding to a vital local scene.

From Bellows Falls to Newport, I’ve started to think of the Connecticut Valley Highway as the region’s “Arts Corridor.” I hope the name catches on.

What’s catchy this weekend?

Thursday: Jason Cann, Brown’s Tavern – What a treat to see Jason open for Shana Morrison a couple of weeks back. I hope that the crowd’s positive response compels him to play more of his original songs at Brown’s, Skunk Hollow and Bistro. If he ever decides to make a long-player, I can name quite a few starry-eyed ladies who’d snap it up in a heartbeat. One of the area’s most talented players.

Friday: Oneside, Salt Hill Pub – If I’d made a list, this Boston band would have been my favorite new discovery of 2005. Elements of jazz, jam band and psychobilly, featuring Ian Knox’s insane electric banjo. He does with his instrument what Jimi Hendrix did to the guitar, what Nickel Creek’s Chris Thile does with the mandolin. He redefines it. That Oneside isn’t headlining 800-seat halls tells me all I need to know about what’s wrong with the music business.

Saturday: Negative Creep w/ Stonewall, Royal Flush – The Springfield club is the new home of tribute bands, with Negative Creep, an homage to Nirvana, this time around. Stonewall has made a series of moves lately, finishing up work on a full-length album, playing shows as far away as Boston, and generally making plans to hit it big in 2007.

Sunday: Sonya Kitchell, Paramount (Rutland) – A knockout at last summer’s Newport Folk Festival, with a bluesy set that was restrained when it needed to be, but flat-out rocking most of the time. She’s more subdued on record; “Let Me Go” sounds like a Norah Jones outtake. Performing live, however, she kicks up a lot of dust. If Janis Joplin had been sober, she might have sounded as good as this youngster. Kitchell also performs at Woodstock’s Town Hall tomorrow night.

Tuesday: Chrissy Huggins & Stephen Secules, Canoe Club – From Dartmouth’s World Music Percussion Ensemble, these two haven’t even finished college yet. Canoe Club honcho John Chapin calls them “an unlikely, fascinating, vocal-piano duo … demonstrating an unexpected, genuine feel for the great American songbook.” Huggins and Secules graduate with the class of 2007 in June, so if this sort of thing interests you, time may be running out.

Bob Marley Can’t Help It – He’s Funny

bobmarley2a.jpgComedian Bob Marley couldn’t stop being funny if he tried. Case in point: Marley begins a phone interview Tuesday with small talk about the unseasonable winter. So far, so good. But if you could look down the line, you’d spot a mischievous gleam in his eye.

“If I see Al Gore,” he says, “I want to tell him hey, New England’s been freezing for the last thousand years. You can globally warm us for as long as you want. Bring it on!”

Marley, who performs Saturday, January 20 at the Claremont Opera House, found his calling early on. He was listening to George Carlin and Richard Pryor albums as a child, and he’s been a pro at cracking wise for 15 years now, claiming he can’t help himself. If he didn’t have an audience, Marley says, “I’d still be in Shaw’s trying to convince the checkout guy that I’m funny.”

The Maine native may joke about the weather, but he’s here to stay. Last year, Marley moved back to Portland from California, where for 11 years, he chased the modern comic’s dream, the network sitcom. That didn’t happen, but he did hit the Hollywood trifecta – appearances on the Leno and Letterman shows, and a movie. Marley’s ‘Detective Greenly’ role in “Boondock Saints” won him good critical notices.

But he soon grew weary of Left Coast life. “After a while, I realized I don’t want to be an actor, I want to be a comedian,” says Marley. “Living in L.A. stalls your act horribly. Every time you’re on stage you’re under the scrutiny of who might be at the back of the room.“

“I feel at home in New England,” he says, where the crowds tend to understand his favorite bits about Poland Spring water (“Protected by nature? Yeah, right next to Mechanics Falls!”), Billy Squier concerts at the Cumberland County Civic Center, and Maine’s preferred security device, “the two-by-four lodged in the bottom of a sliding glass door.”

Since returning to Maine, he’s released a combo CD/DVD of his stand-up act. He’s become a regular guest on radio stations from Washington, D.C. to Barre, Vermont. In December, he completed “Comedy Central Presents: Bob Marley” at Broadway’s Hudson Theatre in New York City; the half-hour special airs February 2.

Marley also welcomed his third child, a son, into the world last November. “It’s crazy,” he says. “Apparently, the other two kids still need stuff! Three days after we got home, the six-year old says, ‘Daddy, can I have a glass of water?’ I said, ‘I just gave you one two days ago. You’re not like a house plant, just gonna pick it up from there?’ Come on, get with it.”

Much of his material comes from his home life, and Marley’s favorite target is often himself. “It’s kind of like at the end of the day, what else can go wrong with Bob? It puts the audience at ease,” he says.

“People are always thinking, ‘don’t make fun of me.’ Don’t worry,” Marley says. “I’ve got enough of my own problems, I’m not coming after you.”

Though he does use his own family as fodder, he sometimes has to be careful. He recently likened marriage to comparison shopping at Best Buy. “When I get home, I don’t remember the other TV on the showroom floor. It’s kind of like when you get married,” he said. You don’t think about the set you didn’t buy. “You just sit there with the same miserable TV night after night. Sometimes the screen sags, the picture gets a little wider, or you try to turn it on and it won’t warm up, and sometimes it gets stuck on the same channel, saying the same thing, over and over.”

His wife took a bit of umbrage to the analogy. So now he’s quick to point out , “I’m very happy with my small, perky television,” adding praise for the fine chassis.

He’s a fan of political humor – “Jon Stewart is hilarious,” he says – but doesn’t work much of it into his act. “I’ll do current events, if it’s funny, but I don’t get involved with who’s who.” A typical topical joke centers on the process of voting, not the candidates. “I don’t like going into the booth,” says Marley, “I would rather fill out the ballot in the lobby. I’ll play around in there; I’ll stick my head outside the curtain and say, ‘can you bring me a pair of 34/32’s? These ones are too tight.”

Marley considers himself lucky for the professional life he leads. If he ever does get a network deal, he’ll try to film it in Maine. Whatever happens, he’ll be a stand-up comic.

“There are lot of guys who aren’t content with just doing this,” says Marley. “They’re missing it. No matter how famous you get, you’ll keep coming back to this. You can’t walk away from it.”