Jonatha Brooke – Careful What You Wish For

brookecd.jpgCD Review

Jonatha Brooke channels her inner Todd Rundgren in an effort that’s worlds removed from her folksinger roots, though her busker humor is always in evidence.

“I was so naïve,” she chuckles on the title track (and album opener), plucking out a distracted guitar progression, before shifting to dense, majestic pop. It’s a record that reveals more texture with each listen.

Brooke made the smart choice to call on producer Bob Clearmountain, who worked with her on “10 Cent Wings” and “Steady Pull.” Traces of the soundboard wizard’s work with Simple Minds and Aimee Mann are in evidence, particularly on “Forgiven,” which alternately crunches and caresses the listener.

“Keep The River on Your Right,” co-written with Nick Lachey, smolders with soul, while the wordplay-rich “Hearsay” (“there’s hearsay/then there’s hearing you say that she’s leaving”) is the record’s highlight.

Brooke hasn’t completely forsaken the calliope folk-pop she did with the Story. “Never Too Late For Love” and “After The Tears” are good examples. But with “I’ll Leave The Light On,” she only nibbles at the edges of that early sound; as with “”Baby Wait,” she wraps spare pieces in full-bodied rhythm.

When she sings with a sneer, “tell me the story again/the one where I find my way home in the end,” on “Prodigal Daughter,” it’s clear that while there may be echoes of the past, for Brooke there’s no looking back.

That’s a good thing; the buffed and muscular “Careful What You Wish For” is Jonatha Brooke’s “Something/Anything?” – and one of the year’s best.

 

Comcast Must Hate Music

Cable monopolist Comcast just announced a change to the local (New Hampshire/Vermont)  HD programming lineup, effective June 26.

HDNet, the Mark Cuban-created source for Arrested Development reruns and great live music shows like the V Festival, True Music and concert specials like the Chicago/Earth, Wind & Fire set a few months back, is out.  In its place is the stodgy A&E HD network.

Additionally, HDNet Movies was kicked to the curb, to be replaced by National Geographic Magazine’s high definition offering.  I guess one Discovery Channel, not to mention similar programing on PBS, wasn’t enough.

I’m pretty sure Comcast hates music; every day it seems another outlet disappears and a lifestyle station takes its place.   Oh, there’s lots of Ashley Tisdale and Kanye West videos (and “cribs” tours, no doubt) available on demand, but for anyone with an attention span longer than 8 or 9 minutes, there’s not much left.

It’s bad enough that Comcast’s web site, and their latest hype offering TVplanner, can’t keep track of their own stations when it comes to music.  Go there and filter on HD and you’ll find channel 771 is the home of MTV-HD, featuring vintage VH1 Storytellers episodes form the likes of Pearl Jam and Bruce Springsteen as well as 3-hour blocks of HD videos.

One problem – it’s not on 771, nor can it be found on any other Comcast channel.

I do hope FairPoint’s acquisition of Verizon is approved.  Local television service could use a shot in the arm.

Local Rhythms – Salt Hill and Global Health Cares

Few area drinking and dining establishments offer as much live music as Lebanon’s Salt Hill Pub, and there’s never a cover charge. Except, that is, when tavern owners Josh and Joe Tuohy’s community spirit takes over.

Once every few months, Salt Hill picks a charity. Their first effort came back in 2004, when the then-relatively unknown ALO raised a tidy sum for Global Healh Cares. The organization, founded by local doctors, helps provide eye care to rural Nicaraguan families.

GHC cofounder Chris Fields is a pub regular. “He tells me a lot about what they do, and what the conditions are,” says Josh Tuohy. “They get eyeglasses for people who’ve never had them in their life.”

Salt Hill is again helping Global Health Cares. Proceeds from a benefit this Sunday will go to fund construction of a new hospital in Manugua. GHC’s goal is no less than “re-shaping the health care delivery system of southwestern Nicaragua.”

Two area bands will perform that evening The Starline Rhythm Boys, based in Northern Vermont, specialize in the honky-tonk sound familiar to fans of the Flatlanders and Dwight Yoakam. “They got some serious twang in them,” Tuohy says. Johnny B. and the Goodes play down-home blues, led by harp player and Salt Hill mainstay Johnny Bishop

Even though they’re helping a community that’s 2,000 miles away, Josh and Joe feel right at home.

“We have a lot of causes that we support that are local,” Josh says, including CCBA, MS fundraisers and more recently for the playground built in memory of a Plainfield family who perished in a 2005 fire.

“Global Health Cares isn’t local, but it was created locally,” Josh continues. “These are all people we see at the pub, and in the community.”

Salt Hill tries to do one charitable event per quarter, and not all of them are ticketed shows. “Sometimes we donate a percentage of sales,” Tuohy says.

For the Putnam Playground benefit, organizers found a band willing to play for free; the pub gave 25 percent of the afternoon and evening sales..

There’s always the occasional customer who balks at paying. “When it comes to the day of the show, I will tell customers it’s a suggested donation,” Tuohy says. “If they just want to have a sandwich and not stay, it’s OK.”

“By the end of the night, though, they usally find the donation jar,” he adds.

The rest of the weekend has plenty to offer as well:

Thursday: Jason Cann, Brown’s Tavern – People come for Cann’s eclectic covers, such as “Friend of the Devil” and “Please Come to Boston.” But while they enjoy his steady guitar hands and soothing voice, he occasionally slips in a fine original tune. There should be a campaign to force him to make a CD. I’ve been waiting patiently. He appears every Thursday in this Ascutney Resort dining spot.

Friday: Spiral Farm Band, Sophie & Zeke’s – Reading through last Sunday’s feature on the renaissance of downtown Claremont, one might have gotten the mistaken impression that it was only just now getting started. Hardly. It was an uphill fight to get this place open, and next month marks one year of live music at this midtown dining mainstay. Spiral Farm, with their soothing and spirited.bluegrass sound, has been a big part of things.

Saturday: Roadhouse, Imperial Lounge – If straight ahead, familiar rock and roll is your mug of Bud, this is your band. The Washington Street establishment has a little bit of everything, and a big dance floor. Roadhouse is their de facto Saturday night band, so they must be doing something right. Mix Chinese food, Japanese sushi and American classic rock and what do you get? A party.

Sunday: Benefit Show, Fall Mountain Regional High School – In 2000, a 4 year old cancer patient named Alexandra Scott opened a lemonade stand in her front yard to raise money to find a cure for all kids with cancer, setting off a world response. Tonight, four area bands do their part: Sun King, Second Wind, Smoke & Mirrors and Stonewall. A good time for a good cause.

Tuesday: Dick Dale, Iron Horse – He invented surf guitar before the Beach Boys, and he’s still at it 50-plus years later. Dale was one of the first to pick up a Fender Stratocaster, though Leo Fender, the guitar’s inventor, laughed heartily at his first try. He was playing it upside down and backwards. You can’t argue with the sound, though.

Wednesday: Cheryl Wheeler/Anais Mitchell, Colonial Theatre – Wheeler made her mark years ago with folk gems like “Autumn in New England.” Mitchell’s just getting started. The young Vermont singer-songwriter has a new record on Ani DiFranco’s label. Check it out – Keene’s a quick hop, even with three dollar gas.

Local Rhythms – Shenanigans Supports Local Music

stonewall-sml.jpgA couple of months ago, the Upper Valley music scene’s ubiquity dimmed a bit when Shenanigans switched to a “house band” live music format. The nightclub, located next to the Astrobowl in White River Junction, used to book different performers every Friday and Saturday night.

Fortunately, that’s changing.

“Honestly, from the get-go I couldn’t wait to see it stop,” says Dennis Naylor, who recently took over management responsibilities. “People rely on something new.”

That’s a fresh outlook indeed, and when Naylor took over booking the music, he thought an open audition call of sorts might bring some variety to the venue.

That’s the idea behind the “Shenanigans Battle of the Bands,” which began last week.

“There’s so many bands out there that you don’t get to hear unless you go to one particular bar,” says Naylor. “The CDs you get … have been doctored up in the studio, and this is better than trying out a new band on Saturday night and finding out they’re horrible.”

Some of the area’s best stepped up – Sarvela, an AC/DC-inspired WRJ band won last week, and Stonewall battles D’brotherhood tonight.

Next week Four of Clubs and Reality Check compete.

The three first round winners meet in the finals May 24, and the winner gets a cash prize with a headline slot at Shenanigans on Saturday, May 26.

“We got so many bands that we’re going to do a second one in June,” says Naylor.

In the meantime, house bands are history, and one of Dennis’s favorites plays this Saturday. Conniption Fits features former members of Syd and the veteran area band Motorplant; their fine new CD, “Airplane Rides,” is getting airplay on more than a few area radio stations.

There’s a vibrant area music scene happening, and it’s great to see Shenanigans back on board with it. Where the recent talk was, in Naylor’s words, “want to go to Shenanigans? No, they had the same band last week,” now there’s plans for even more local talent.

Next month, the club is adding live music to the vintage car show they do every year. “It will probably feature one of those small local bands,” Naylor says.

With his novel competitition to pick a Saturday band catching on, there could also be a lot more Thursday night rocking going on in White River.

What else is shaking this weekend?

Thursday: Falcon Ridge “Most Wanted Showcase, Middle Earth – Each year the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival has an all-day New Artist Showcase, where juried performers play three tunes apiece. The well-heeled audience then votes on the top three, who are invited back and are also featured on a pre-festival tour, which stops tonight in Bradford. Red Molly is an all-female three-piece with great harmonies, Ellis plays her own brand of spirited acoustic rock, and Pat Wictor is, simply, worldly wise.

Friday: Pete Merrigan, Sophie & Zeke’s – It’s the long-awaited return of “Three Season Pete,” and can summer be far behind? He’s like “Cheers”with a beret – he knows everybody’s name. A word of advice – make reservations if you want to enjoy Merrigan’s happy-go-lucky blend of picking, singing and banter. Downtown Claremont’s favorite dining spot is sure to be packed for this one.

Saturday: Soak, Heritage – A new band in the box at Charlestown’s favorite music spot, this time a Allman Brothers/Grateful Dead-inspired three piece from Manchester. You can listen to their stuff on MySpace (www.myspace.com/soaknh), but the real fun happens when Soak plays live. Look for a big Memorial Day party in two weeks at the under-new-ownership Heritage, with Sun King, Stonewall and the Highball Heroes – always a great time.

Sunday: James Keelaghan, Boccelli’s – Recently, I failed to give this Juno-nominated songwriter credit for writing “Cold Missouri Waters,” done to perfection by Cry Cry Cry on their album, so I’m righting that wrong. Keelaghan has a great singing voice and a terrific catalog of songs, including “Jenny Brice” and “River Run.” He also did a nice cover on “Beautiful,” a tribute album to fellow Canadian Gordon Lightfoot released last year.

 

Tuesday: Irish Sessions, Salt Hill – The musical circle in the center of Lebanon’s tavern on the green started and stopped in March. It resumes in earnest with the permanent trio of Chris Stevens on squeeze box, along with Roger Burridge and maestro/mainstay Dave Loney on fiddle. Anyone with a bit o’ talent can stop by and join in. A welcome return of an area tradition.

Wednesday: Michael Civiello, Old Courthouse – The Colby-Sawyer music direction tickles the ivories every Wednesday at this elegant, understated Newport eatery. His sound doesn’t dominate the room, but it always enhances it. A bit of jazz and classical to accompany an inventive menu. Highly recommended.

Local Rhythms – A Day Without Net Radio

radio1.jpgSince I wrote about the threat to Internet radio a few weeks ago, things have gotten worse for music streamers like Last.fm and Pandora. The Copyright Review Board (CRB), which sets the cost paid to content owners, refused to hear an appeal to a rate increase that stands to shut down a lot of music streams.

Net stations have turned their attentions to Congress, which is showing signs of action, but D-Day is July 15. That’s when retroactive hikes, amounting to more that triple the current rates, kick in. It should be noted that these are fees paid ONLY by online radio operators.

When that happens, many web sites will have but one option – to shut down.

This is dire, not only for net radio, but for artists who’ve given up on the mainsteam as a way to build exposure. That’s the reason for next Tuesday’s “Internet Radio Day of Silence.”

Many prominent webcasters have signed up, though participation from big terrestrial players like Clear Channel is not yet forthcoming. This may change, as Sound Exchange, the music industry agency that successfully won the CRB case, is making noises about trying to raise the “performance rates” paid by terrestrial and satellite operators.

I suppose for some readers, this is all a bit esoteric, but then again so were compact discs in 1984. But if the leading edge of technology is destroyed before it has a chance to become mainstream, everybody loses.

For example, what if the movie studios had won their lawsuit against Sony’s VCR and made it illegal to record movies from your television?

So much stands to be destroyed in the name of protecting an industry that has proven time and again to be its own worst enemy. In a few days, you’ll have a chance to witness where this short-sightedness leads.

Cell phone networks are becoming fast enough to support Internet radio streams, yet this ruling, if it stands, means few if any will ever get started. Those that do will probably play it safe to reach the lowest common denominator.

I’ve already got too many of those in my car.

Great music comes from bending rules and breaking barriers. The Internet is the only truly nurturing environment for the few cultural revolutionaries still in our midst.

Shutting it down doesn’t make sense.

So when Tuesday comes, listen to the silence and ponder what it means. In the meantime, check out these live music choices:

Thursday: Tuck Stocking, Gusanoz – Cinco de Mayo is to this place what St. Patrick’s Day is to Salt Hill, an excuse to celebrate all week long. Tonight, one of the best young guitarists in the area steps up. Tuck provided the secret sauce on Syd’s first record, and his work on the Conniption Fits’ latest helped to turn their new album into a regional hit.

Friday: Sol Y Canto, Lebanon Opera House – This Latin-flavored combo will be busy today, performing two educational shows early Friday morning, and playing with the Upper Valley Music Center’s Children and Youth Chorus at 7 PM. Buoyed by Rosi and Brian Amador, the band’s name means “Sun and Song.” With Rosi’s redolent singing and Brian’s expressive Spanish guitar stylings, it’s a sound that’s as hot as good salsa.

Saturday: Joey Leone’s Chop Shop, Claremont Opera House – Will the plaster stay on the walls? Can the old opera house stand the shock of the rock? We’ll see when Leone takes the stage. Over the course of his two-hour set, Joey channels everyone from Zeppelin to ZZ Top. Lonnie Youngblood calls him the best guitarist he’s played with since Hendrix, and fans pack the ski resorts whenever he plays.

Sunday: Ronnie Milsap, Paramount (Rutland) – He established his bonafides with hits like “There’s No Gettin’ Over Me”and “I Wouldn’t Have Missed It For The World.” I was reminded of how talented Milsap is when Joan Osborne recorded his Grammy-winning hit, “Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends” on her most recent album. This, my friends, is the Nashville Sound. If you love it, Ronnie’s your man.

Tuesday: Wailin’ Jennys, Iron Horse – As Pete Townshend said, all the best heroes have Chinese Eyes, and all the best Americana comes from Canada. Rough-hewn and utterly charming, this trio got a nice nudge from regular appearances on “A Prairie Home Companion.” Their music is a mix of Dixie Chicks harmonies, rustic overtones and some seriously sweet picking.

Wednesday: Terry Diers, Canoe Club – Like a lot of area musicians, Diers wears a few hats. He plays with the rock bandk Skinxs and does bluegrass with Celtic hammered dulcimer player Samantha Moffatt. Tonight, he plays solo on several instruments – 6 & 12-string guitar, mandolin, and even a little piano.

Book Brings Neglected Songwriter to Life

lonelyavenue.jpgLonely Avenue – The Unlikely Life & Times of Doc Pomus

By Alex Halberstadt

 

So many music biographies begin with a famous face, and simply add to an established legend. “Lonely Avenue” is a wonderful exception to that well-worn rule. It’s a warm and illuminating look at the creator of timeless songs like “Save the Last Dance For Me,” “Teenager in Love,” and “This Magic Moment.”

Everyone knows the music, but few know Doc Pomus. Halberstadt’s book brings him vividly to life.

This insprirational tale should be required reading for anyone faced with adversity. Stricken with polio at a young age, the highlight of his childhood might have been seeing his picture in the local paper over the caption, “Paralyzed Boy Is Gleeful” – he’d been given a puppy by New York radio station. But Doc Pomus, born Jeremy Felder in 1925, overcame that and many other challenges over the course of his his life.

He walked on crutches with his legs in steel braces, and dreamt of being the world’s greatest handicapped boxer, and played the saxophone, but that ended when his knuckles were shattered by a hooligan’s iceball. By age 14, he’d changed his name to and was singing blues in New York nightclubs, leading a double life he kept well-hidden from his mother and father.

During the late 1940s and early 1950s, a time marked by a sea change from jazz’s dominance to the birth of rock n’ roll, Pomus was one of the few white regulars to play the Harlem’s grittiest blues spots, but mostly struggled to achieve the success of his counterparts. Pomus did a few sessions, and scored an unlikely “hit” with a clothing store jingle, but that was about it.

Doc didn’t set out to become a songwriter. Like most things in his life, it came out of necessity, as the gigs petered out along with his chances of making it as a recording artist. “Doc marveled at an odd paradox,” writes Halberstadt. “It seemed that whenever he got a taste of the big time he ended up disillusioned, usually worse off than before.”

Alan Freed played one of his records, the sentimental “Heartlessly,” for weeks on his radio show, but the song lost traction when RCA, “convinced they’d bought a bona fide black hit … discovered the singer was a thirty-year-old, handicapped Jew.” With that rejection, Pomus “collapsed under the accrued weight of pennilessness, missed sleep, self-abuse, and the constant near misses.”

On one of many trips to then-young Atlantic Records trying to score a session, Pomus’s childhood hero Big Joe Turner suggested he write him some songs. Doc accepted the offer and wrote three songs, including “Lonely Avenue.” Atlantic producer Jerry Wexler gave it to Ray Charles, who heard the soulful hunger in the song and “got it right away.” Thus began Doc Pomus’s career as a writer..

The story of how “Save the Last Dance For Me” came to be is one of the book’s highlights. After a long an sometimes awkward courtship, he married the aspiring actress Wilma “Willi” Burke in 1957. Three years later, he wrote the first draft of the song on the back of a wedding invitation, remembering how he watched his brother and other guests dance with his new bride at their reception.

There were plenty more ups and downs in Doc Pomus’s life. The highs included working in the Brill Building beside great tunesmiths like Carole King and Gerry Goffin and writing chart hits for the Drifters and other doo-wop bands. He enjoyed a long collaboration with Mort Shuman that ended at nearly the same moment as his marriage to Willi, financial ruin and spiritual rebirth through his marriage to Shirlee Hauser. The animated denizens of midtown Manhattan circa 1960 are brought wonderfully to life, including a young Rodney Dangerfield and Muhammad Ali, punctuated by all-night card games and, of course, lots of great music.

The book is peppered with many wonderful anecdotes, like the industry dinner where ardent admirer John Lennon told him “Lonely Avenue” was the first song the Beatles ever rehearsed, to the time when Bob Dylan came to him for advice on writer’s block. Doc, writes Halberstadt, “told him that even though he couldn’t be twenty again, his songs could still be thrilling and profound. All he had to do was believe in himself.”

He might as well have been repeating his own advice to himself. Doc Pomus never gave up, and was writing great music throughout his life. He collaborated with Willy DeVille in 1980 on a project that produced “Just to Walk That Little Girl Home” and “There Must Be A Better World Somewhere.” Right before he died in 1991, he did some of his best work with Mac Rebennack, a/k/a Dr. John.

Halberstadt uses source material from friends, family and colleagues; he also had access to Doc’s voluminous diaries. “Lonely Avenue” is a richly detailed, and long overdue, study of an overlooked musical treasure. It firmly establishes Doc Pomus’s place as one of the most important figures in American music.