Local Rhythms – Don’t Be Such A Spud

activitytv.jpgI may never leave the house again.

Late last week, Comcast completed a promised upgrade to their On Demand television system. Customers with digital set-top boxes now have twice as many reasons to stay on the couch. Movie selection has doubled – I counted over 190 free films, though some, like “Sahara” and “You Can’t Take It With You,” are so old they’re practically in the public domain.

The IFC offering is more cutting-edge, with brand-new indie films that open on TV and theaters on the same day. But these movies will cost you $5.95 each, though like all pay-per-view content, they can be watched for up to 24 hours.

It’s not all good. The on demand music is overstuffed with Beyonce, 50 Cent and Ne-Yo, and doesn’t excite me much. It may be hip-hop nation, but I live in a classic rock county. Some other new stuff is just silly, like On-Demand Dating, which has 30-second video ads from lonely men and women. Try E-Harmony, kids.

Move beyond that, however, and there’s a bevy of programming that may get you out of your chair. Activity TV, found on the Kids menu, offers lessons in juggling, puppet making, cooking and origami. This programming is also available on the activitytv.tv web site.

On Sports, there’s an exercise channel with lots of 10-minute workouts, as well as the youthful SportSkool, which features how-to demonstrations in snowboarding and skiing (there’s a nifty little Bode Miller profile), along with baseball, soccer and skateboarding lessons from pros like Mia Hamm and Dontrelle Willis.

On the Music menu, aspiring axe players can take guitar lessons. Star with the basics, move on to Barre chords (I didn’t know it was spelled that way either), and then apply your newfound knowledge to classics like “Pride and Joy” and “Sweet Home Alabama.”

If you’d rather sing than play, the music channel also has Karaoke TV. The song selection, with a bit of country, rock and pop, is a more diverse than the music videos. Don McLean’s “American Pie” was a regular family experience, with my wife and daughter joining in on the chorus, and laughing heartily at me as I tried to follow the bouncing lyric ball. There’s everything from “More Than A Feeling” to “Baby’s Got Back.”

It’s a great way to watch television without being a couch potato. If you’d rather go out on the town, however, here are some choices:

Thursday: Tim Harrison, Middle Earth – This Canadian folksinger reminds me a lot of fellow countryman Gordon Lightfoot. They both cover much of the same territory in their songs: the great and unforgiving wilderness, small quiet country towns, and geese – lots of geese. Harrison has won the attention of some of music’s more discerning ears, among them Daniel Lanois, who’s worked with Dylan and U2 (and produced Harrison’s last album).

Friday: Last Kid Picked, Electra This Newport band recently celebrated 10 years together; tonight, they head to West Lebanon. Give the litigious climate in the music business lately, I wonder if they’ll be looking over their shoulders when they play “It’s A Long Way To the Top?” AC/DC, after all, was one of the plaintiffs in that recently Vail nightclub suit.

Saturday: Hexerei & Transcent, Imperial Lounge – Music lives on Washington Street, despite the flight of Bistro Nouveau to greener pastures. Hexerei is very close to releasing their third album; Transcent’s combination of passion and technical proficiency so impressed me recently, I managed to garble their lead singer’s name in my review. For the record, it’s Mike Boucher.

Sunday: Spookie Daly Pride, Pickle Barrel – A raucous four-piece band from Boston that combines elements of hip-hop with loose, fun rock and roll. They remind me of Oingo Boingo before the movie soundtracks, or a caffeinated Squirrel Nut Zippers. For a clue of how ubiquitous they are, they’ve opened for everyone from Bela Fleck to Busta Rhymes.

Monday: Bob Weir & Ratdog, Capitol Center – The Grateful Dead side project that evolved into a full-time gig for Weir, though long-time bassist Rob Wasserman is gone (the two still play as a duo every now and then). With classic Dead songs like “Throwing Stones” and “Truckin’” combined with solo gems – “Cassidy,” “Mexicali Blues” and “Playing in the Band,” to name but a few – this should be a fine show.

Tuesday: Longford Row, Salt hill Pub – The members of this Burlington-based Irish trio, led by Gerry Feenan of Trinity, bartered tickets to the Saw Doctors’ Lebanon Opera House show in exchange for their services tonight. With any lucky, they’ll be able to serenade the objects of their adoration later. The band stopped by for a pint or two the last time they were in town. This set marks the resumption of the much-loved weekly Irish Sessions, though the next one will begin earlier.

Saw Doctors @ Lebanon Opera House 3/13

bw-cup-of-tea-sml.jpgThe Saw Doctors’ short, nine-show tour this month will take them to big cities like Boston, New York, Chicago, Washington D.C and … Lebanon, New Hampshire.

Singer and guitarist Davy Carton says there’s a reason for the band’s upcountry detour. The Irish rockers, known for irreverent hits like “Useta Love Her” and “Bless Me Father,” have fond memories of a show they played at the Lebanon Opera House two years ago.

“The sound in the room was just amazing, we could hear everything,” Carton said on the phone from Ireland last Tuesday. “The sound was absolutely unique, it was one of the best gigs we’ve ever done. We were enjoying it hugely, the audience got up and enjoyed it; they were buzzing on the good sound.”

“We typically play in stand-up, dirty black rock clubs,” said Carton. “We generally don’t play sit-down shows at all, and rarely in theatres.”

“It also helped that there was a very friendly bar across the road from it, the Salt Hill bar I think it’s called,” Carton says. “The man there looked after us really well last time. Sometimes they can mess you around, they give you food and drink, but they want to take your picture and the like. But this man was genuinely nice, and we have good memories of it.”

For Salt hill Pub proprietors Josh and Joe Tuohy, the feeling was apparently mutual. The Lebanon restaurant is underwriting this year’s Opera House show.

The Saw Doctors sound is often called Celtic rock, a term they consider a misnomer. “It’s rock and roll with an Irish tinge,” he says. “We don’t do jigs and reels. We sing the way we talk, so you know we’re Irish. But we’ll have an accordion on stage in the same way The Band has one.”

Think of it as brogue-inflected Americana. Carton cites Bruce Springsteen, John Fogerty and the Ramones as key influences. “We’re trying to write songs for the next album like classic Creedence Clearwater Revival.”

Over a 20-year career, the Saw Doctors have released six studio albums, and are working on a seventh, which they hope to release in early 2008.

One tune that will probably make it to the record is “Ivana In The Brogue,” a bouncy love ditty about a bar patron’s infatuation with a Polish emigrant. Songwriter and band co-founder Leo Moran’s clever wordplay is at work, rhyming “dance “ with “Gdansk.” and describing the girl as “a cross between Maria Sharapova and Kylie Minogue,” perhaps so the comparison rhymes with “brogue.”

Over the years, the band has cultivated an enthusiastic fan base in the region. In western Massachusetts, they began in the 150-seat Iron Horse Music Hall; now they appear at the Calvin Theatre, which seats 1300. This year, they’ve scaled back their usually rigorous touring schedule to work on the new record,

This is the band’s 14th consecutive St. Patrick’s Day visit to the U.S. Promoters and agents have figured out that Americans celebrate the holiday with more vigor than the Irish. Back home, says Carton, “it’s a day off, and there’s a good lot of drinking, maybe a couple of football matches,” and not much more.

“But we’d go to America and there’s this big exaggerated Irish thing. That was foreign for us,” he says. Strangely enough, says Carton, “the Irish are now imitating the Americans. There are parades and three-day festivals. The razzmatazz has seeped over to Ireland. It wasn’t there 15 years ago.”

Occasionally, the green-toned merriment backfires on the band. One recent St. Patrick’s Day, they sold out a New York show, but ended up performing for a half-full house. “People got too pissed (drunk) during the day and didn’t come to the concert, even though they’d bought the tickets,” laughs Carton.

Despite the city’s famous tradition of dying the river green for St. Patrick’s Day, he doesn’t think that will happen this year in Chicago; the Saw Doctors play the Old Vic Theatre March 17. “We’ve always found a very musical audience in Chicago,” says Carton. “We tend to get very hardcore fans, and the venue is a real rock and roll theatre. I think it will be a great gig, and the fans there will be coming for the Saw Doctors, not St. Patrick’s Day.”