Local Rhythms – The Fireworks Are Hailing

This is the time of the year I start humming Bruce Springsteen’s “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” and thinking about fireworks. That’s inevitable – I moved East from California in 1976, just in time to join an estimated 2 million people in Boston for the Bicentennial.

There’s nothing like a patriotic sky to bring a country together, and every year it seems the divisions in our nation miraculously heal, if only for 24 hours.

The Fourth of July is also a great time to be in a small town. The pyrotechnics, while modest when compared to the Washington Monument or the Hatch Shell, still inspire plenty of “oohs and ahhs”. Here’s what’s happening locally next Wednesday.

Springfield’s Wings and Wheels, held at Hartness Airport, claims to be the biggest fireworks display in Vermont. It’s a chance for the kids to get up close and personal with planes and tractors, and music. Local blues man Chris Kleeman and his band performs after the show in the sky.

In Claremont, the rocket’s red glare will emanate from Arrowhead, for citizens to enjoy in Monadnock Park. Destiny and perennial favorites the Flames provide entertainment.

Saxton’s River has an old fashioned parade, as does Plainfield, where there’s also morning gospel music at the community church, a flea market and an art show.

Grantham’s Old Home Days is always fun, with a parade, climbing wall, train rides and country music from Ozzie’s Band.

Of course, if you believe that bigger is better, you can always pack the family up and trek to Boston, where the Pops reign supreme. If you want to get anywhere near the stage, though, plan to show up at dawn.

Your reward is a healthy dose of classical music with an attitude, ending with the “1812 Overture,” and the most over the top fireworks show known to mankind. Celebrity performers are always a part of the show, too, and this year John Mellencamp joins Keith Lockhart’s thoroughly modern orchestra.

The former John Cougar will probably do “Pink Houses” and “Our Country” – which isn’t a bad song in spite of its egregious commercialism.

I think I’ll Tivo the Boston event, and join my family and friends on the big lawn for some local fun. To paraphrase Mr. Mellencamp, I wasn’t born in a small town, but now I live in a small town.

What else is happening?

Thursday: Goog Smith Trio, Elixir – Another new venue, with a martini bar and small plate menu. Built in a renovated freight house right along the railroad tracks in White River Junction, I’m told it has a nice ambience and reasonably good acoustics. The Goog Smith Trio is bursting with youthful energy (again, according to my sources). Nice to see the local milieu growing – WRJ is turning into a real hot spot.

Friday: Yarn, Okemo Mountain – Their “Angel in Woodstock” sounds like an upcountry version of “Poncho and Lefty,” and as someone else wrote, you can almost hear the pops in the vinyl when they play. This four-piece band, led by songwriter/guitarist Blake Christiana, is a treat for anyone who calls themselves a fan of Americana. What a perfect way to start the five-day weekend (you are taking Monday and Tuesday off, right?).

Saturday: Jesse Peters, Heritage – A formal grand opening, courtesy of new owners Richard and Sarah Cahill, includes a free buffet from three to eight, with music later from Jesse Peters and his band. Peters will continue to hold down open mike nights at this Charlestown institution. One more thing – if you see Richard, make sure to congratulate him. On July 4, Cahill officially becomes a U.S. citizen, at a ceremony to be held in Portsmouth. Ain’t that America?

Sunday: Pink Martini, Hopkins Center – An eclectic 12-piece orchestra that blends classical, Latin and jazz into something truly unique. Their music turns up in the strangest places – movie soundtracks, “Sopranos” episodes and during the setup of Windows Server 2003. You heard right, Pink Martini is capable of serenading geeks and gangsters (albeit fictional ones). Their latest, “Hey Eugene!” takes lounge music to a new level.

Monday: A Day In His Life, Pittsfield Colonial – OK, most of you wouldn’t drive this far anyway, so I mention it mainly to fuel debate. If you loved the Beatles as much as I did, you don’t want to see clone imitations like this alleged John Lennon reincarnation. If you’re craving an ersatz Summer of Love redux, go see It’s a Beautiful Day in Northampton on Sunday. Better yet, rent “Monterey Pop” and enjoy the real thing.

Further Out: Last year’s local music extravaganza at Whaleback Mountain was a huge success, and “Whalestock,” set for August 11 at the Enfield ski area, hopes to follow in its footsteps. Hexerei again headlines, this time minus longtime bassist Mike “Frodo” Bergeron.

Rhythms of the River Brings Music, Awareness to WRJ

A series of concerts featuring area musicians and benefiting local charities continues this weekend at Lyman Point Park in White River Junction. Saturday’s show at the Hartford Band Stand features the Gully Boys, Kind Buds and the Black Moon Bear Drum Ensemble.

“Rhythms of the River” kicked of May 27th, when Wise Rockobili played. Proceeds went to the White River Partnership, a community-based environmental group. Saturday’s performance benefits Advance Transit. Admission is free, however. Money is raised primarily through donated concession stands, though several civic-minded businesses also help out.

Two more concerts are scheduled: Bow Thayer with Juke Joynt on September 2nd, and a September 29 finale, with a yet-to-be-named lineup.

The shows are the brainchild of Dave Clark, who saw an opportunity to showcase the park’s band shell and call attention to the Upper Valley music scene. The latter is an ongoing cause for Clark, a writer, publicist, and musician. He manages an email list that reaches over 1,000 live music fans. Since its launch a year ago, Clark says the “Music Lover’s List” has made a big impact on the burgeoning local scene.

“Our web traffic has doubled over the past six months,” he says. Clark’s yellowhousemedia.com site sports a performance calendar, covering dates from Burlington down to Brattleboro, and points in between. There are song samples from several performers as well, from the rootsy Bow Thayer to the Celtic-tinged Sam Moffatt. There’s also plenty of Clark’s own work from Acoustic Coalition and the Gully Boys.

“If you want to hear what’s going on locally, there’s no place to do it,” says Clark, who sees Yellow House as a “central place to sample local musicians.”
It’s a great way to get people thinking about live music, he says. “Once people know there’s a lot of good stuff out there, and it’s going on all the time, they might turn off their television sets.”

“A good musician needs an audience,” he continues. “It works for the venues too, because if they see 60 people instead of 10, then they feel a lot better about bringing music in.”

The ever-multitasking Clark also sees Rhythms of the River as a chance to call attention to more than his hometown. “The issue of our life is low carbon, how do we live in a sustainable way,” he says, and the shows will feature exhibits showing how citizens can act personally to that end.

Think of it as Live Earth at the local level.

“That’s the underpinning of my message,” he says. “It feels good to bring some awareness to the local community.”

Kelly Willis – Translated From Love

willis.jpgToo tired from raising three children to write original music, Kelly Willis entered the studio ready to record cover tunes.  Gratefully, she found her muse with collaborator/producer Chuck Prophet.  Willis’s first new album in five years is also her best.  At turns sly, clever, upbeat and sweet, “Translated From Love” pairs her honey-throated warble with a range of influences and co-writers.

Iggy Pop’s “Success” has an organ riff lifted straight from “96 Tears,” while “Teddy Boys” reverses genders, but stays true to its rockabilly roots.  Another good rave-up, “Nobody Wants To Go To The Moon,” is musically lean and lyrically limber.  There’s a nice balance of tempos; the beautiful waltz “Stone’s Throw Away” and “Too Much To Lose,” an ode to the challenges of married life sung with husband Bruce Robison, are particular standouts.

The record’s universality is part of its’ charm; the gently loping “Sweet Little One” could be about a child or a lover. The same could be said for “The More That I’m Around You,” a harmony-rich rocker with a very un-country dose of keyboards.

Kelly Willis has flown under the radar for some time.  “Translated from Love” has the potential to change that – if family life doesn’t get in the way.

Kelly Clarkson – My December

clarkson.jpgFor all the controversy surrounding this record, you’d think Kelly Clarkson had released “Metal Machine Music.”  It does have a Seventies feel to it, but “My December” isn’t kin to Lou Reed’s notorious 45 minutes of droning feedback.  When it works, it’s a straight-up rocker Pat Benetar wouldn’t be ashamed of. 

Patty Larkin once said, “don’t’ piss off a songwriter,” and here’s a good example of why.  This is a seething work; aided by punk hero Mike Watt (Minutemen) and co-producer Jimmy Messer’s slashing guitar work, the music’s as edgy as the subject matter.  The jilted mistress of “Never Again” is the same one who later snarls, “I don’t’ want to hear about your wonderful life” in “How I Feel.” 
“Hole” spews more bile on this ex-boyfriend, who appears to be the record’s primary songwriting inspiration, while the bonus track “Dirty Little Secret” sounds lifted from the Rolling Stones’ “Some Girls.”

When she’s angry, this record’s a joy.  Though only an EP’s worth; “My December” is ultimately an erratic effort.  Clarkson should have stuck to rocking out, and avoided the indulgence of ballads like “Irvine” and “Sober” – though the latter is a worthy showcase for the “American Idol” winner’s ample vocal talents.

More Morrissey – It’s Letterman’s Fault

More on Morrissey’s postponed June 27 Pines Theater show, via an IHEG email:

“Morrissey regrettably had to end his show at Boston’s Bank Of America Pavillion last night after 30 minutes due to a throat infection that made it impossible for him to continue. The audience of almost 5000 strong experienced a fantastic opening seven numbers that included classics “The Queen Is Dead” and “The Last Of The Famous International Playboys.” During the intro to “National Front Disco” Morrissey told the audience, “We recorded the David Letterman Show last night in a studio that was 30 degrees below zero. 29 degrees below I can take but 30 below was too much and unfortunately it will not just be the emotions cracking tonight but my voice as well.” Three songs later he was unable to continue and the show came to a close. As a result the show in Northampton, MA tonight has been postponed. We hope to announce a new date in the next few days. All tickets will be honoured for the new date. The tour will continue in New York at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night.”

Lori McKenna – Unglamorous **Updated**

mckenna.jpgIn 2004, I attended Signature Sounds’ 10th anniversary show at the Calvin, and in addition to enjoying music from performers I knew about – Josh Ritter, Mark Erelli, Rani Arbo – I found about a few I’d somehow missed.

One was Lori McKenna, who writes devastatingly straightforward songs about life as most people know it. I checked out her then-current album, “Bittertown,” and found it packed with insight, a quality missing from most pop music these days.

Apparently I wasn’t the only one paying attention to Lori McKenna’s brilliance. In the spring of 2005, Faith Hill stopped work on her album when she heard “Bittertown.” Eventually, three McKenna songs, including the title cut, made it onto “Fireflies,” and Warner Brothers picked up “Bittertown” for distribution.

WB also began artist development work with Lori. What’s that, you say? Didn’t that disappear in the Seventies? Not in country music, it seems. On August 14, Lori McKenna will release “Unglamorous,” her proper major label debut. I’ve heard snippets, and I’ll go out on a limb to say success hasn’t spoiled her one bit.

Her label put together a QuickTime biovideo, which is on the William Morris Agency site, to help folks get a sense of this wonderfully talented artist.

A longer version is also on YouTube.

She’s on tour now with Hill and husband Tim McGraw, with two stops next week in Boston. But I’d recommend you skip the EnormoDome shows and wait for her to tour in support of the new album. She’s better at places like the Calvin and Somerville Theatre; I’ve a feeling success will force her from intimate rooms like Hooker-Dunham and Iron Horse.

**UPDATE** Wait, I’m wrong about that. Iron Horse has Lori and her band scheduled for July 20, with Mark Erelli opening. Of course, AFTER “Unglamorous” comes out, that will change.

I predict “Unglamorous” will be THE country record of 2007, a singer-songwriter masterpiece.

Watch the video and see for yourself.

Local Rhythms – Life-Changing Music

meet1.jpgIn his excellent autobiography, “Radio Waves,” Jim Ladd (the guy Tom Petty sang about in “The Last DJ”) recalls asking John Lennon about the impact his music had on the social changes of the 1960s.

“Artists are a kind of mirror of society, they’re not some luxury,” he answered. “Critics say … you sang about peace but you never got it. I think, what would have happened if we hadn’t said that?”

I believe in the transformative power of music; in some ways, it’s my religion. When I say “God’s in the Pod” – the iPod – I’m only half-joking. A good song takes me places in a way nothing else can.

So it intrigued me when a recent email asked for five records that changed my life. Not the best, you see – the most important. Here’s the list I made:

1. Meet the Beatles – I was 7, and one of the millions swept up by Beatlemania. But this discovery marked a departure from the sing-along folk and mysterious jazz I heard at home. The Beatles represented my musical declaration of independence.

2. Sounds of Silence – This Simon & Garfunkel record was under the Christmas tree one year. I hadn’t asked for it, but as I listened, my rebel heart softened a bit for my parents. I’ve tried to carry on the spirit of musical sharing with my own kids.

3. Black Sabbath – Did heavy music even exist before this band’s first record? Maybe, but nothing had the impact of the deep bells that opened side one, the maniacal Ozzy Osborne’s trembling voice, and those throbbing guitars.

4. Talking Heads ’77 – I’d heard of the CBGB’s scene, but thought it was about attitude, not art. I wasn’t interested. Then my best friend gave me this record and I realized that without attitude, music couldn’t aspire to art.

5. This Side – It was Nickel Creek’s performance at Lebanon Opera House as much as their second proper album (they made some kiddie bluegrass back when) that helped me to realize the walls had truly fallen. There are no genres, only music.

Thanks to Christopher Bergmann (his band Spectris plays the all day “Field of Rock” show August 18 at Okemo) for sending this my way. As Chris observed, “there are so many others.”

What are yours?

Here’s what’s hot in upcoming local music:

Thursday: Singer & Jordan, Inky’s Place – Here’s something I didn’t know about. There’s a school in White River Junction, the Center for Cartoon Studies, offering a two-year degree in the art of the graphic novel. The Hotel Coolidge re-named their café in its honor; Innkeeper David Briggs calls it a “de facto student union.” It’s also home to the occasional musical performance, tonight by Phil Singer and Laurianne Jordan, who’ve graced a few different area bands.

Friday: Billy Rosen Quartet, Sophie & Zeke’s – A crowd-pleasing four piece jazz combo that’s at turns smooth, sultry and swinging. Rosen has a subtle touch on guitar; a saxophone player who neither stands in the shadows nor tries to blow the room away complements him. What’s most impressive about this lineup is the organic interplay between the musicians. It’s an inspired, yet disciplined, jam session from one of the best groups to play this downtown venue.

Saturday: Last Kid Picked, Anchorage – It’s a busy weekend for this Newport band, helping Electra celebrate six years in business on Friday, and getting the harbor party started on Saturday. LKP has been together since 1996, when they played together for the first time at West Lebanon’s Werewolves. The lineup has changed considerably over the years, but the band is still a local institution that knows how to rock.

Sunday: Jenny Brook Bluegrass Festival – The seventh annual event in Weston, Vermont closes with a morning gospel sing-along followed by mandolin wizard Buddy Merriam and his Back Roads band, and performances from the many faces of the Sawyers, the family that puts this festival together every year. It starts on Thursday, and features some of the best Americana around.

Tuesday: EdgeFest w/ Hem, Boston Symphony Hall – God bless Keith Lockhart. Under his helm, the somewhat stodgy Boston Pops has welcomed the likes of Aerosmith, Guster and Aimee Mann into their musical fold. The EdgeFest is now in its third year, a deliberate melding of the staid and the new. The 2007 edition features two nights of Cowboy Junkies, followed by this atmospheric chamber pop combo. The collaborative potential here is, to be sure, promising.

Wednesday: Morrissey, Pines Theatre – The former Smiths front man has moved on from the morose pop of “Pretty Girls Make Graves” and “Girlfriend in a Coma” – but he’s still miserable, only with more beefed-up arrangements. Somehow I can’t picture him playing outdoors in a Northampton park on a hot summer night, but we’ll see.

Rani Arbo & daisy mayhem – Big Old Life

raniarbo.jpgThis is an ear-to-ear grin of a record, full of joy and the counting of blessings. “Raise your cup to another day,” sings bandleader Arbo on the title cut, an obvious nod to her recent battle with breast cancer. But it would be too easy to sum up the record’s buoyant mood as a simple paean to beating disease. “Big Old Life” is about surviving and thriving.

There’s nary a downbeat moment here. The hymn-like “Joy Comes Back” opens the disc and sets the tone. Equally spiritual is “Roses,” another Arbo original which describes the satisfaction of doing one thing well; it’s also a showcase for the band’s gorgeous harmonizing and spare, attentive playing.

This is a well-balanced effort, with an even mix of originals and covers. Leonard Cohen’s “Heart With No Companion” and band member Anand Nayak’s original “What’s That” touch on death’s mysteries. “Oil In My Vessel” serves up a gumbo of folk traditions; there are at least four different songs tossed together here (it’s credited to one Joe Thompson), and who knew “Amazing Grace” could sound any happier?

“Farewell Angelina” is an interesting choice for a Bob Dylan cover (“the sky is erupting/I must go where it’s quiet”), but its hootenanny tempo is light years removed from the original. “There’ll be time enough for darkness when everything’s gone,” Arbo sings over a melancholy beat on the album’s closer, a cover of Daisy May Erlewine’s “Shine On.”

That’s the message of “Big Old Life” – shake the demons from the dark moments and dance joyfully into the light.