Local Rhythms – Banding Together for a Fan

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Few can match the music community’s generous nature. It’s amazing – most area players have day jobs, and stuggle to find the time to even practice. But when there’s a friend in need or a cause worth supporting, they won’t hesitate to step up.

For example, there’s the COVER show featuring Jay Ungar and Molly Mason tomorrow at the Lebanon Opera House, and next week’s Farmer’s Market benefit, wit Dar Williams topping the bill.

Sometimes it’s a fellow performer that needs a helping hand, but this weekend in South Strafford, Vermont some of the Upper Valley’s best will band together for a fan.

Health care is a problem that no amount of politics or public agitation seems able to solve. For some, medicine is the greatest luxury of all. That’s the case for the area woman, who’s asked to remain anonymous in the public media, at the center of Saturday’s benefit show at Barrett Hall.

The “Purple Hair Fund Dance” – she’s been known to dye hers that color – features Dr. Burma, Gypsy Reel, Blue Monday, Jeanne McCullough and Friends, Jeremiah McClane and Terry Youk.

In the course of the event’s four hours, others will undoubtedly join in.

Admission is by donation, and proceeds raised will help with the medical costs faced by a person who, says show organizer Ted Mortimer, “all the musicians on the bill know and love.”

Ted Mortimer leads Dr. Burma; he’s guitarist, teacher and all-around good guy. “I’ve known her for 20 years,” he says.

“She and my wife Linda are like sisters.”

“Last month she was diagnosed with a Type IV Glioblastoma,” he tod me in a recent email, “which is the worst variant of the most aggressive brain tumor there is. She had surgery at DHMC about 10 days ago to remove it, but they couldn’t get it all.

“The docs have told her she has 18 months to live if she opts for heavy radiation and chemo; 3-6 months if she doesn’t. She has no health insurance, little savings, and can no longer work.”

Far too often, financial ruin accompanies the physical and emotional devastation of failing health. That’s especially true for a lot of musicians.

The Rhythm & Blues Foundation, for example, pays for things like wheelchairs, hearing aids and funeral expenses for destitute players.

With that in mind, it’s inspiring to know that this weekend, local musicians will be singing for a music lover.

What else is on the calendar?

Thursday: Aztec Two-Step, Boccelli’s – “Music Lives in Bellows Falls.” That’s the new slogan across the river, and they’re proving with show after show. This duo has been entertaining regional audiences since the late Sixties. Their 1972 debut album sat at the crossroads of folk and prog-rock, and was an FM radio staple at a time when such a thing mattered. It’s been over 35 years, and they’re still going strong.

 

Friday: Blue Monday, Skunk Hollow Tavern – This band, which also plays the “Purple Hair Dance,” got their name from the Monday night Salt Hill jam sessions where they met and found their groove together. Featuring harmonica man Johnny Bishop, Brian Kennell of the Squids, Bobby Gagnier and Ted Mortimer (who’s everywhere and plays everything, it seems), the band covers the gamut of the American blues idiom, and have a ton of fun in the process.

Saturday: Sirsy, Salt Hill Two – If you haven’t seen this two-piece powerhouse, you’re in for a treat. Haling from upstate New York, Sirsy features the awesome lungs of Melanie Krahmer, who can wail, growl and pound the devil out of a drum kit. She’s accompanied by guitarist Rich Libutti, who helps out on snare when Melanie takes a flute solo – did I mention that? This is a duo that’s decidedly greater than the sum of their parts.

Sunday: Jack’s Mannequin, Keene State College – Jack McMahon’s side project is more of the piano-driven indie rock that his band, Something Corporate, has a reputation for – albeit a little wilder and unrestrained. In an attempt to either keep the crowd young or make sure the oldsters pay a price for living vicariously, student tickets are five bucks. Everybody else pays twenty-five.

Monday: Graham Parker & His Latest Clowns, Iron Horse – He emerged around the same time as Elvis Costello and Joe Jackson. Early records like “Squeezing Out Sparks” hinted at greatness, but Parker’s star never rose to the level of his English compatriots. One of the punchiest live shows in all of rock. Eilen Jewell opens – she’ll be a bona fide star by summer’s end, mark my words.

Wednesday: Chaos Theory Dance Company, Colby Sawyer College – Student, faculty and guest dancers join forces for two nights of spirited improvisation The “Theory of Everything” dance features music taken from silent movies and Queen riffs. This week’s eclectic pick.

Townes Van Zandt – John Kruth’s Biography

tvzbio.jpgTo Live’s To Fly

The Ballad of the Late, Great Townes Van Zandt

by John Kruth

Townes Van Zandt died young at 52, but he was lucky to have made it past 30. The subtitle of John Kruth’s biography refers to a 1973 album, “The Late Great Townes Van Zandt,” which got its’ title from the time in 1972 that the singer clinically died – twice – after a heroin overdose.

“Many thought Townes’ excessive behavior was deliberate,” writes Kruth, but the Texas songwriter “believed he couldn’t write with validity without firsthand experience … it was hypocritical to sing the blues if you haven’t lived them.”

Through the recollections of Van Zandt’s friends and acquaintances, John Kruth’s biography paints a vivid portrait of a troubled, gifted artist who never achieved the level of personal success he deserved. His songs, said one friend, “stick in your mind like burned beans to a Crock-Pot.”

“If you say Buddy Holly is the father of Texas rock,” says Michael Murphey, “the you have to say that Townes is the father of Texas folk.”

Sadly, Van Zandt’s own records didn’t sell well, a fact Kruth attributes to poor management and the singer’s lack of creative control in the studio. Over the course of his career, Van Zandt re-recorded many of his best songs, both live and in the studio, trying and failing to get the perfect take. Often, says Kruth, excellent work was obliterated by overdubbing.

It wasn’t until tunes like “Poncho and Lefty,” “Tecumseh Valley” and “If I Needed You” were covered by the likes of Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris to Bob Dylan that the world outside Texas began to notice Townes Van Zandt. In death, his reputation as the best songwriter to ever come out of Texas is undisputed.

Kruth’s book is hamstrung a bit by its’ hagiographic nature, conflicting memories and the absence of some key voices. Susannah Clark is working on her own book, so the author had to rely on a few quotes from other sources to communicate her close friendship with Van Zandt.

Some of Van Zandt’s close friends were reluctant to speak with Kruth, a fact used to entertaining effect in an exchange with Guy Clark (married to Susannah). Before agreeing to talk, the songwriter grills him mercilessly, phoning Ramblin’ Jack Elliot in an attempt to call his bluff. “Jack, I got this little Yankee journalist here who says he knows you,” sneers Clark, then hands the phone to Kruth.

There are festering rivalries between many of the principles that leave the reader wondering about the real stories at the heart of the book. Longtime manager Kevin Eggers and Townes’ third wife Jeanene Van Zandt, for example, had a bitter relationship before and after the singer’s death.

Often, each reports a different version of events, forcing intermediaries to provide clarity for certain incidents. Engineer Eric Paul stood between the two while trying to mix a 1990 session using a group of backing vocalists that Jeanene termed “cheesy” and Eggers likened to Elvis Presley’s Jordanaires.

“I did my best!” says the exasperated Paul, who claims that Van Zandt was “quite proud” of the finished work..

The author attempts to solve the problem of multiple recollections by introducing an abundance of voices to Van Zandt’s narrative. This is a problem. As Kruth notest early on, “Townes was everyone’s best friend.” Often, the telling of a single story resembles a gaggle of hung-over drunks trying to explain the events at last night’s party.

That’s a challenging task for the best of writers, let alone an unabashed fan who’s given the singer’s widow “my guarantee that I wasn’t out to lionize her husband for all the wrong reasons.” Any honest biography would suffer from such stipulations.

Still, “To Live’s To Fly” managers to ably gather the threads of Townes’ Van Zandt’s life. But Kruth can’t avoid, as he puts it, “glorifying tragedy.” He’s writing about a subject whose best work was at times utterly morbid, and who wrote lines like “the end is coming soon it’s plain/and a warm bed just ain’t worth the pain (“Tower Song”).

“Townes was a sad soul,” says friend Eric Anderson. “You know how Rolling Stone rates new albums with stars? Well, if a song was really depressing, we’d give it ten razor blades.”

It’s hard to find the silver lining in those words . Says Kevin Eggers, Townes Van Zandt “worked at being a tragedy. That was his full-time occupation.”

 

Dar Williams Plans BF Farmer’s Market Benefit 4/27

dar-williams-and-jackson-brownep.jpgFolksinger Dar Williams does her part for a local cause next Friday, when she performs at the Bellows Falls Opera House in support of their farmer’s market.

David Francey, a Canadian singer-songwriter who’s built a following through several area performances, opens the show. The Bellows Falls Farmers Market will host a reception in the lobby prior to the concert.

The market, which officially opens May 18, provides a comfortable environment for fruit and vegetable growers from the surrounding counties to sell their wares. It features crafts, canned good, as well as some great local music. Upcoming performers include the Little Hope String Band, Josh Maiocc, Julie Waters, Patrick Fitzsimmons and Jesse Peters.

Show promoter Ray Massucco pitched the benefit idea to Williams at her New Year’s Even show in Northampton. She readily agreed.

“Dar has always been supportive of community-based agriculture,” says Charlie Hunter of Flying Under Radar, who is co-promoting the show with Massucco. It doesn’t hurt that Hunter managed Williams early in her career, and that the two have remained friends. But her commitment to activist causes runs deep in any case.

Many of her songs reflect her political beliefs, from the anti-war sentiments in “Empire,” from her last album, to “Play the Greed,” perhaps the most eloquent ode to green capitalism ever written. It was part of the “Hempliations II” anthology a few years back.

All the while, she’s donated her time to a myriad of interests and issues.

In 2005, she sponsored a group of Dartmouth students who traveled the country promoting alternative energy in a french fry oil-powered vehicle dubbed “The Big Green Bus.” While on tour in support of her most recent album, “My Better Self,” Dar’s “Echoes Initiative” would choose a local charity in each city she played. At her Burlington, Vermont show, fans donating to the Chittenden Food Bank received passes to a post-show meeting with the songwriter.

Last month, she peformed at an anti-war teach-in, and in support of an Ossinning, New York education foundation. Tomorrow, she plays a private concert in conjunction with an event at Harvard’s “God-Free Chaplaincy” honoring the writer Salman Rushdie, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen and scientiest E.O. Wilson, among others.

“I expect I’ll receive a very nice tote bag,” quips Williams, never at a loss for levity.

The Farmer’s market show was, Dar says, a natural choice for her.

“I finally realized that local food groups and community gardens provide an approachable microcosm of all the global issues I support,” Williams said in a statement on her web site.

“Also,” she adds, tongue in cheek, “supporting community gardens means –dude!– a lot of free food on the road.”