Local Rhythms – No DRM

nodrm.jpgSteve Jobs is like that old ad for BASF – he doesn’t make the computers, digital music players or cell phones, he just makes them better. How? By thinking like the people who will ultimately use the MacBooks, iPods and iPhones that his company, Apple, unleashes on the world.

On Sunday night, the world will watch the annual Grammy awards unfold. Amidst a sea of self-congratulation, the stubbornly out-of-touch music business will again refuse to face some obvious truths. First, lawsuits won’t make people buy music, and second, encryption schemes won’t stop them from stealing it.

Which brings me back to Steve Jobs. In an open letter published on Apple’s website last Tuesday, he called for an end to digital rights management (DRM) schemes – the many ways record companies lock up their online music. His declaration carries some weight, because iTunes is the world’s largest legal download service, and the iPod is far and away most popular music player.

Jobs made a call to simple, common sense. In a world, he wrote, where last year 2 billion songs were sold online, “while over 20 billion … were sold completely DRM-free and unprotected on CDs by the music companies themselves,” how can anyone stop piracy?

On the other hand, if the industry took all the money wasted on making CDs that aren’t bought, the warehouses where they’re stored, and the fleets of trucks that deliver them, they could change the world and save their business.

When faced with the choice of a drive to the mall or a click of a mouse, what will most people do? But music purchased through most download services is fraught with problems that often render it unplayable. Tech-savvy fans turn to free (and currently illegal) download options for convenience as much as price.

If only the industry could agree upon a way to monetize this practice. They view Napster, which ushered in MP3 file trading in 1999, as the beginning of their end. Left out is the fact that CD sales rose, not fell, in Napster’s wake.

In making millions of songs easily available to casual listeners, Napster sparked an explosion of interest in previously ignored music. The industry responded by litigating them out of existence. Eight years later, they still haven’t learned that more fans means more business. Hopefully, Jobs’ modest proposal will spur them to find fresh ways to face this challenge.

On to live entertainment:

Thursday: “The Male Intellect,” Claremont Opera House – It’s a weekend for laughter, with Dubac’s critically acclaimed one-man show tonight, and Brooklyn funny woman Mary Dimino Friday at Hullabaloo in downtown Claremont. Dubac hilariously explores the confusing gulf between the sexes, while the down-to-earth Dimino looks at life from a female perspective, including this funny take on weight: “I started as a woman, and ended up Spongebob Squarepants.”

Friday: – Pondering Judd, Salt Hill Pub – A first-time appearance by this Seacoast Americana combo, who can pick and grin like Nashville cats, and then kick out the jams with e-Phish-iency (sorry about the pun, it’s been that kind of day). They’ve opened for Guster and the Saw Doctors, and were just named best rock band of 2006 in a recent Portsmouth poll.

Saturday: Last Kid Picked, Newport Opera House –
Local heroes hold down the musical end of Winter Carnival for another year. They’ll play everything from “My Prerogative” to “Boys of Summer” – the Ataris’ version. Newport boasts the oldest winter carnival in the country; this is the 91st year. LKP hasn’t played every one, but they’ve done a bunch. The best part about this show, perhaps, is that it’s indoors.

Sunday: Mike Monaghan, Center at Eastman – Saxophonist Monaghan freelances with the Boston Pops, and has worked with Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Anita O’Day. Sunday’s show begins with the Bill Wightman-led JOSA Ensemble, who will then back Monaghan. There’s a real chemistry between Wightman’s band and the musicians he recruits for JOSA that makes each performance special and unique.

Tuesday: Altan & Paul Brady, Hopkins Center – This is a great double bill of Irish music, featuring Altan, a six-piece traditional band, and Brady, a terrific songwriter who’s given songs to everyone from Bonnie Raitt to Bob Dylan. Brady will do his own set and sit in with Altan. His soulful voice should blend well with lead vocalist Maihread Ni Mhaonaigh’s pristine soprano.

Wednesday: Jerry Douglas, Iron Horse – He didn’t invent the Dobro, a resonator guitar turned flat and played with a combination of steel sliding and finger picking. But to hear the sounds emanating from Douglas as his hands float and dance across the instrument, you’d be forgiven if you thought otherwise. He often backs people like Allison Krause. To see him up front is a real treat.

“Children Running Through” – Patty Griffin’s Long Winter Journey

griffinsml.jpgTime, inexorably passing and gratefully savored, informs much of Patty Griffin’s latest effort, Children Running Through. Fittingly, it arrives amidst this season’s coldest days. Throughout the 12-song collection (13 when purchased through iTunes), it’s winter – for broken bodies and beaten souls. World-weary resignation courses through this, Griffin’s fifth and most fully realized record, and colors the chilly landscape of slow buses, empty fields and sinking vessels like flinty clouds.

Fans of every phase of Griffin’s 11-year recording career will find something to like here, from the raw acoustic folk of her earliest work to the lush arrangements on 2004’s Impossible Dream. Often, the elements come together in a single song. “No Bad News” opens with busker guitar and ends a Calypso romp, while the Dylanesque “Getting Ready” hints at the stark, percolating fury of Living With Ghosts, then shifts into a loose garage band sound familiar to anyone who’s heard a leaked Internet copy of Silver Bell, her unreleased masterpiece.

There are gentler moments, such as “You’ll Remember,” a sultry torch song that opens the disc, and the spare, nostalgic piano ballad, “Burgundy Shoes.” Griffin and producer Mike McCarthy (Spoon) again recruit Americana grand dame Emmylou Harris to sing backup to stunning effect. Framed by elegiac guitar, Harris’s brittle, beautiful voice perfectly complements “Trapeze,” the tale of an aging circus performer who has loved, lost and even taken a potion to harden her heart, yet still works without a net.

“Trapeze” is a perfect distillation of the storytelling magic heard in earlier works like “Making Pies” and “Top of the World.” It’s destined to be one she’s singing 20 years from now, and make no mistake – people will pay to experience Griffin’s timeless magic even then. For more than any songwriter, Patty Griffin crafts her music the way Shakers make chairs, seamlessly joined and breathtaking in their durable beauty.

Griffin’s songs are as lean as her frail physique, yet powerful as the train at the center of “Railroad Wings.” “There are things you don’t know you know,” observes Griffin over a lazy guitar cadence, coming to wisdom by song’s end: “as far as I can tell everything means nothing/except some things that mean everything.” Such small, beautiful jewels are everywhere on this record.

The “children running through” this disc would bury Griffin or worse, reduce her to irrelevancy. “I’m no kid/In a kid’s game,” she laments at one point, a moment later waiting to “send the ghosts on their way/tell them they’ve had their day” in “Someone Else’s Tomorrow.”

But Griffin echoes each funereal moment with one of fierce determination. On the gospel-fueled “Heavenly Day,” she sings, “tomorrow may rain with sorrow/here’s a little time we can borrow,” with the spirited abandon of a young Aretha Franklin. Throughout, she wrestles hope from her darkest moments. In “I Don’t Ever Give Up,” she states defiantly, “I’m not clean/but I’m not washed up.”

Hardly. This record probably won’t get much radio airplay, and may be completely ignored by a youth culture that consumes music like Pop-Tarts. But Children Running Through will be passed, hand-to-hand, among the gray believers who know that, as the final track (“Crying Over”) intones, “in all of this dreaming of silver and gold/is something to break this winter so cold.”