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.

The Click Five – Modern Minds and Pastimes

clickfive.jpgThe Click Five switch lead singers, but don’t lose a step on their second album. New vocalist Kyle Patrick doesn’t hit the same high notes as the departed Eric Dill, but it hardly matters. Well-crafted pop confections like “Jenny” and “I’m Getting Over You” go down easy – almost too much so. There’s a by the numbers feeling running through the record, as if the five Berklee grads spent as much time in marketing classes as they did perfecting their sound.

The target audience – teens to twentysomethings who like their hooks hard and emo lite – certainly won’t mind. The mix is edgy enough for Warped fans (“When I’m Gone”), but will safely fit on Radio Disney (“Mary Jane”). “Addicted to Me” sounds like a Rob Thomas outtake, while the simple minded fun of “All I Need Is You” shows the influence of Fountains of Wayne founder (and Click Five mentor) Adam Schlesinger.

“Headlight Disco” suggests a Survivor/Prince mash-up; it’s one of the disc’s high points. A less successful blend is the synth-pop album opener “Flipside,” which cuts erratically between emo noodling and Big Eighties arena rock.

They’re on safer footing with “Happy Birthday, where the song’s protagonist sends a belated wish to his long distance girlfriend. It’s a new take on an old theme, but as a trip to any multiplex makes clear, it’s a season of sequels. The pop music world’s no different.

Brad Paisley – 5th Gear

bradpaisley.jpgForget Kenny Chesney, Keith Urban and Toby Keith – Brad Paisley is the real deal, the total package. His latest is a winning combination of humor, soul, sensitivity and his secret weapon, blistering guitar power. A country star with chops like this hasn’t come around since Vince Gill left Pure Prairie League, turned down a chance to join Dire Straits, and unleashed “Oklahoma Borderline” on an unsuspecting world.

On “5th Gear” Paisley shows the everyman touch. A 16-year old boy’s simple ambitions power “All I Wanted Was A Car,” while “I’m Still A Guy” is a hilarious send-up of the battle of the sexes. “In a weak moment I might walk your sissy dog, hold your purse at the mall,” says Paisley, “but remember – I’m still a guy.”

“Ticks” celebrates what may be the most absurd barroom come-on ever devised, while “Online” puts a country accent on the old axiom, “in cyberspace, no one knows you’re a dog.”

Paisley has his pensive moments on “Letter to Me,” “With You, Without You” and the pretty “Oh Love” duet with Carrie Underwood. “When We All Get To Heaven” could be part two of “When I Get To Where I’m Going” from his last album, and continues his habit of including at least one gospel song on each release.

The rockers “Mr. Policeman” and the instrumental “Throttleneck” serve notice that for all his aw-shucks twang, Paisley can play most guitarists under the table.

In a noteworthy tribute, Vince Gill lends his voice (and dubious acting talents) to a vignette by the Kung Pao Buckaroos, the supergroup-cum-sketch comedy ensemble that also includes Little Jimmy Dickens and Bill Anderson.

Local Rhythms – Ticketmaster Alternatives

I was all set to rant about live music monopolist Ticketmaster this week. Have you heard the one about this summer’s Bon Jovi concert tour? There’s a special American Express pre-sale, which purportedly offers a free copy of the band’s upcoming CD with every ticket. But each seat comes with a 10-dollar surcharge – in addition to their already usurious handling, convenience and venue fees – to cover the cost of the album.

In other words, Ticketmaster isn’t giving it away at all. On the contrary, they’re FORCING YOU TO BUY IT if you want to see Bon Jovi.

Dishing out the hate to that is easier than hitting a beach ball with a cricket bat.

Why bother?

Instead, let’s talk about some alternatives to the evil empire, right here in your own backyard. 12 years ago, Pearl Jam tried and failed to manage their ticket sales. But that was before the Internet, with its low operating costs and tight fan connections.

Of course, Ticketmaster has a web site, but they do things on it like charging extra to print tickets at home. That saves them money; why should fans pay?

Virtuous.com sells online tickets for Boccelli’s in Bellows Falls, Brattleboro’s Latchis Theatre, and several other smallish New England venues. They have a service fee – everyone does. But it’s simple, fair and they donate ten percent of their profits to local charities.

Higher Ground, the long-running South Burlington music club, also keeps service charges low and explains where they go – agents, venues and so forth.

How does this ethical company compare to Ticketmaster? Well, seats for Bob Dylan’s upcoming Burlington show come with a $4.50 “convenience” charge – compared to nearly 15 dollars in assorted fees for Dylan’s Boston gig.

Iron Horse Entertainment Group sells tickets through the Northampton Box Office, with fees that typically represent about 15 percent of a transaction. That’s a little high, but you can hand pick from available reserved seats for Calvin Theatre shows, for example, and pay face value day of show.

Closer to home, Lebanon Opera House has a small online fee of $2.00 per transaction, and Claremont Opera House doesn’t charge anything but the ticket price.

So while you hate Ticketmaster, remember to spread a little local love – and don’t forget these shows:

Thursday: Granite State Stompers, Bistro Nouveau at Eastman – The phrase “New Orleans Music” brings many things to mind – the bon temps Zydeco of Beausoleil, the bouncy free form jazz of the Marsalis family, or the smooth vocal style of Harry Connick, Jr. But Dixieland put the Crescent City on the musical map. This homegrown ensemble swings the way they did at the turn of the 20th century.

Friday: Sleazy Listening, Marzelli’s Cafe – This young, fresh and talented jazz combo doesn’t get around nearly enough for my tastes. But they sure sound good. This Sunapee Coffee House set is a “pass the hat” affair. Sleazy Listening has an upbeat, tightly syncopated sound, and lead vocalist Andal Sundaramurthy sounds like honey on strawberries tastes. They also play a 5 PM Saturday set on the New London Town Green.

Saturday: Matt Haimovitz, Boccelli’s – A renegade cellist – now there’s a concept I could grow to love. Haimovitz started out as a modern classical musician, but these days he’s as likely to perform Hendrix as Handel, the Beatles as Bach. In concert, he positively rips “Kashmir” apart – Led Zeppelin never sounded like this. His instrument is 300 years old, but everything else about Haimovitz is 3rd Millennium.

Sunday: Quechee Balloon Festival – This is the third and final day of this annual event. As in past Father’s Days, dads get in for half-price today, provided they bring their kids. Nice little racket, that. Speaking of which, there’s music all weekend long from the likes of blues boys Johnny B and the Goodes, the Bela Fleck-inspired Don Sheldon & Friends, and what I’m promised will be a festival high point, the Burlington Taiko Group, featuring Japanese drumming and eastern rituals.

Monday: Heartless Bastards, Iron Horse – The first time I heard this three-piece band, they sounded like a punkier Over the Rhine. It turns out they share the ethereal pop band’s hometown – but not much else. This is edgy, full-bodied and aggressive music, led by take-no-prisoners front woman Erika Wennerstrom. Enter at your own risk – you may be hooked.

Tuesday: Acoustic Coalition, Firestones – Two Quechee picks in one week – that’s some kind of record. Led by area music maven Dave Clark, Acoustic Coalition is an open mike of sorts staffed by musician friends and whoever happens to drop by. Clark says the idea was born after seeing a David Bromberg acoustic jam session at the old Higher Ground a few years back. It’s one of those places where just about anything can happen.

Re-Meet The Beatles

It was 40 years ago today, the Beatles taught the world to play.  With the June 3 anniversary of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” there are Fab Four projects in abundance, though none will have the seismic effect on the music world of their 1967 masterpiece.

“Will you still need me, will you still feed me when I’m 64?” asked Paul McCartney on that record.  Now he’s reached that ripe old age, and Sir Paul isn’t waiting around for an answer.  Instead, he’s pulling out all the stops to assert his relevance.  Ringo Starr, the only other living Beatle, has an art show, greatest hits package, and two live DVDs in the pipeline – in addition to a rumored new studio album.

John Lennon’s memory is being invoked anew by Amnesty International, and George Harrison’s work with the Traveling Wilburys has been re-mastered and given the box set treatment.

McCartney’s “Memory Almost Full” is an album’s worth of new material that moves from his Beatles tenure (“Ever Present Past,” “Vintage Clothes”) to his looming mortality (“The End of the End”) with breeziness reminiscent of “Band on the Run”-era Wings.

But more attention is being paid to the record’s marketing effort than its musical content.  Starbucks enjoyed success selling exclusive CDs from Ray Charles, Bob Dylan and Sheryl Crow in their national chain of coffee shops.  Last year, they wooed Paul away from longtime label EMI to their Hear Music imprint.

Beginning last Tuesday, every Starbucks latte came with a venti helping of McCartney.  “Memory Almost Full” played 24/7, and the baristas were restless.  Word began to leak out about sabotaged store CD players and disgruntled customers unhappy at being force-fed Macca with their milk foam.

More embarrassing was a “report from the trenches” published on the Lefsetz.com blog.  An anonymous Starbucks manager noted that McCartney, a vegetarian and avid PETA supporter, would likely object to a sign posted in many east coast stores, urging customers to grab the album “while enjoying a new Classic Sausage Egg and Cheese Breakfast Sandwich.”

Of course, when a video of McCartney begging fans to buy the record showed up on Amazon.com, it seemed he’d countenance most anything in the name of commerce.

All the brouhaha is a shame, really, because “Memory Almost Full” is actually quite good, when stacked against his recent solo work.

It’s no “Venus and Mars,” though.

With “Instant Karma: The Campaign To Save Darfur,” at least John Lennon’s dignity is still intact.  Amnesty International gathered a blue chip collection of classic and hip new artists to cover Lennon solo material made available with the help of widow Yoko Ono.  Proceeds from the CD go to support the human rights organization’s continuing work, and specifically draw attention to the dire situation in the Sudan.

Highlights include Aerosmith’s “Give Peace a Chance,” re-worked with help from the Sierra Leone Refugee All-Stars, country stars Big & Rich doing a surprising cover of “Nobody Told Me” and Regina Spektor’s eerie take on “Real Love.”

Green Day’s rocked-up version of “Working Class Hero,” and the Black Eyed Peas’ transformation of “Power to the People” into a hip-hop anthem are also nice touches

Overall, however, the project loses its way.  Two songs, “Imagine” and “Gimme Some Truth” are performed twice on the two-disc set.  Surely the Lennon catalog is deeper than that.  “How Do You Sleep?” and “Well Well Well” are two that might have made the cut.

The record’s producers may have also forgotten that it’s already been done before – in 1995, when the Humane Society raised money with a CD’s worth of Lennon covers.  Amusingly enough, the Flaming Lips contributed a song to both compilations.

What is probably the most potent supergroup in rock history began when George Harrison called on friends Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison to help him with a B-side, “Handle With Care.”  Bob Dylan joined because he had a studio they wanted to use, and Tom Petty came on board after Harrison and Lynne stopped by his house to retrieve George’s guitar.

“If we’d tried to plan it, it never would have happened,” Harrison says in “The True History of the Traveling Wilburys,” a film included in the 3-disc “Traveling Wilburys Collection” released Tuesday.  The set includes both Wilburys albums (the second recorded after Orbison’s death), along with four bonus tracks, and a DVD with the documentary and five music videos.

“It was magical,” said Harrison – an understatement when one views just how ego-free this band seemed to be.  They made up songs in the kitchen, and crowded around a single studio microphone to record “Dirty World” and other tracks.

“There was just a lot of music in the air, a lot of fun going around, a lot of parties,” says Tom Petty.  “We’d play ukuleles until dawn, with our children dropping like flies around us.”

“The Traveling Wilburys Collection” is the sound of close friends enjoying each other’s company, and one of pop music’s great moments.

That leaves Ringo, who’s made a career repackaging his past.  The most earth-shattering thing Starr’s done this year is claim in a recent interview, “Sgt. Pepper’s wasn’t our best album.”  Beyond that, it’s been more greatest hits collections and tours with the “All-Starr Orchestra,” a B-list band that’s been treading the summer sheds for over a decade.

Perhaps “Liverpool 8,” done with the help of ex-Eurythmic Dave Stewart, will shake things up a bit.  The record is rumored to have a more modern sound.

But with the power of their past obviously still intact, why would any Beatle want to try for modern?