Local Rhythms – Movie Music

vanm.jpgI saw Jodie Foster’s latest movie recently. Though I’m not a film critic, let me offer this piece of advice – wait for the DVD. “The Brave One” looks like the studio took a knife to Neil Jordan’s dark vision of a conflicted avenger.

The director’s cut, I’m sure, will be much different from the theatrical release.

One thing that will remain, however, is the music selection.

Sarah McLachlan’s “Answer” is used to stunning effect. The song (one I’d overlooked from 2003’s “Afterglow”) perfectly frames the Foster character’s heartbreak at the loss of her fiancé in a brutal attack, and her soul’s slow re-emergence at film’s end.

McLachlan’s music is ready-made for the cinema – remember how “Angel” propelled “City of Angels” a few years back? But Van Morrison is film’s most reliable go-to guy, appearing in so many soundtracks that earlier this year he released an entire album of his movie appearances.

Morrison’s “Someone Like You” has been in a ridiculous number of flicks, including one named after it (I think it sounded best in “Bridget Jones’s Diary”). For my money, though, the finest use of a Van song (a concert film like “The Last Waltz” doesn’t count) is “Wonderful Remark,” from Martin Scorsese’s “King of Comedy.”

You don’t really hear it until the credits roll, but it perfectly captures the film’s celebrity dementia zeitgeist.

Choose the right music, and a movie transcends the ordinary. “You’ve Got Mail” is just another chick flick, until Harry Nilsson’s version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” sends it soaring above the New York City skyline.

Ditto for “Just Like Heaven” – Amos Lee’s “Colors” (the stripped-down acoustic version, not the more florid take from Lee’s debut CD) made me believe the ethereal love story, if only for a moment.

It happens every week on TV. The only way I ever hear of newer artists like Rogue Wave, The Fray or Feist is by catching them on “Heroes” or “Grey’s Anatomy.”

But the champion of song placement has to be Liberty Mutual – yes, the insurance company. They’ve mad a series of ads that’s elevated a band called Hem to new heights. “Is This the Part Where You Let Go,” like “Half Acre” before it, perfectly marries music to the theme of good people doing good deeds.

I can’t take my eyes from the screen.

I’m watching commercials for the MUSIC? What is the world coming to?

More to the point, what are we doing this weekend?

Thursday: New Kind of Blue, Sophie & Zeke’s – Emily Lanier’s been fronting this band for some time, but lately she’s begun to branch out. Her own Jazz Ensemble is a regular Friday attraction at the Quechee Inn, and she stops by Canoe Club every now and again. If you want to keep up with Emily’s growing calendar, check out her new web site – www.emilylanierjazz.com – and sample some of her wonderful singing while you’re there.

Friday: Amanda Carr, Elixir – Tonight kicks off a two-day festival of world-class jazz in White River Junction, beginning with Carr, a fine Boston vocalist who has performed with big bands (Artie Shaw, Harry James) and received glowing notices from the likes of Nat Hentoff. She even sang the national anthem when the All-Star Game was last played at Fenway Park. Tomorrow, Michael Zsoldos, who studied with Brandon Marsalis, plays saxophone classics. Oh, and the food is as scintillating as the music.

Saturday: Shawnn Monteiro, Proctor Academy – More jazz – sensing a theme here? Saturday provides an early peek at this year’s “Jazz on a Sunday Afternoon” series, returning again to Eastman in December, with food by Bistro Nouveau. Monteiro is the real deal, the progeny of legendary jazz bassist Jimmy Woode. She’s joined by the JOSA Ensemble, led by master multitasker and top-flight pianist Bill Wightman. In addition to producing the JOSA shows and playing, Wightman’s Proctor’s music director.

Sunday: Vermont Fine Furniture Festival, Woodstock Union Arena – An assortment of rock, folk and baroque colors this two-day affair, which begins Saturday. Today, harpist Pat Sagar performs, followed by Upstream, an Americana group featuring rich harmonies and fine picking. Later on, it’s Juke Joynt, a Gully Boys spin-off that mixes originals with classic rock and blues.

Tuesday: Ballet de Folklorico de Mexico, Lebanon Opera House – The thinking person’s Los Lonely Boys? Not really – they’re a dance troupe. They’ve been around for over 50 years, bringing the indigenous traditions of Mexico to stages all over the world. For the younger crowd, this colorful pageant is re-packaged Wednesday morning, as part of LOH’s educational YES! series.

Wednesday: Amos Lee, Iron Horse – He’s one eclectic guy; Lee counts both Stevie Wonder and John Prine as influences. He most resembles another of his idols, Bill Withers. But he tends to be folky where Withers is funky, even though Lee records with Blue Note Records, a jazz/blues standard bearer if there ever was one.

The Sophomore Class – KT Tunstall, James Blunt

Two standout singer/songwriters from across the pond have just released their second efforts:  KT Tunstall’s “Drastic Fantastic” and James Blunt’s “All the Lost Souls.”   Tunstall shifts slightly away from the percussive one-girl band tricks that marked her debut “Under the Telescope.”  Blunt sports a fuller sound than 2005’s “Back to Bedlam,” all the while channeling his inner Bee Gee.  Of the two, Tunstall’s is the most winning.

For this go-round, KT Tunstall wraps her capacious voice around a rugged pop sound.  On the rollicking “Funnyman,” and the soulful “Saving My Face,” she positively soars.  “Hold On” most closely resembles her biggest hit to date, “Black Horse and Cherry Tree,” but it’s the quieter moments of “Drastic Fantastic” that tantalize most, and mark Tunstall as an artist with a chance to inhabit radios (and iPods) for years down the road. 

“White Bird” gently draws the dichotomy of purity and street wisdom into “a land where they both meet,” while “Beauty of Uncertainty” is sure to draw comparisons to Stevie Nicks.  But it’s better than that – like Nicks, Tunstall’s singing is smooth and supple, but with more leather than lace.

The countrified “Hopeless” is fueled nicely by Roger McGuinn-inspired 12-string guitar, while “I Don’t Want You Now” opens like an early Elvis Costello song without the sneer, but no less certain sentiments. 

“Someday Soon” best captures the disc’s spirit, splitting the difference between pensive ballad and buoyant pop.  With this release, KT Tunstall hits an elusive target for most artists – a sophomore release that surpasses her debut.

If only the same could be said for James Blunt.  “Here we go again,” he sings on the leadoff track, “1973.”  Too much of “All the Lost Souls” is fixated on that decade, decked out in Elton John kitsch.  The surviving Gibb brothers might consider suing him over “One of the Brightest Stars” – consciously or not, its melody is a note for note plagiarizing of “Now and Then,” from 1975’s “Main Course”.   

Blunt also subtly pilfers George Harrison’s “Beware of Darkness” guitar figure for “Same Mistake” – ironic considering what George went through with “He’s So Fine.”

“Carry You Home” is closer to the syrupy formula that catapulted Blunt to chart heights.  Depending on your tastes, that could be a good or a bad thing. In 2005, “You’re Beautiful” stuck to brains like kudzu to Georgia garden walls.  Some (this writer included) have yet to forgive him for that. 

OK, the record’s not all bad.  The protagonist of “I Really Want You” simmers with rage, a vivid portrait of post-traumatic stress stripped raw.  An acoustic version of “1973” is included as a bonus cut on some versions. Its’ economy brings nuance to everything that’s overwrought about the album version. 

It’s sad that the rest of “All the Lost Souls” isn’t as restrained.

Rock 93.9/101.7 Flips Format – Update

The 93.9 side of the dial has, as expected, become “The Pulse” – an all-talk format station retransmitting from WTPL in Bow/Concord.

101.7 continues with rock music, announcing themselves as “WVRR 101.7,” although an old promo for 93.9/101.7 slips in occasionally. The music side is robojock-driven, I’ve yet to hear an on-the-air host speak. Morning Buzz and Quinn & Cantara remain.

According to Upper Valley Radio staff I spoke with today, the music will continue on WVRR. Interestingly, I was told that Liz Fox may be returning to do mid-day air work. “I believe that’s under negotiation,” a station representative told me. The afternoons, she said, would be “music-driven” – in other words, robojock.

I’m still undecided about this news. Former PD Steve Smith posted a comment to my original post indicating that his days in Upper Valley radio are far from over. “I have a new radio gig in the works,” he says. “It’s not officially announced to the media yet, but when it, I will let you know!” He ends with a parting shot:

Just one note to any former listener of my former station: I was the Program Director of that radio station for almost 5 years. My goal in radio, from the get-go, was to bring a Rock radio station to 101.7, and also the Upper Valley. Running Rock 93.9 & 101.7 was a dream job for me. We started small and grew into something amazing. We did alot together with Rock The Whale, our Stuff A Bus campaign, Battle Of The Bands, Who Wants To Be A DJ….. I always wanted the station to be a heritage rock station for the Valley. And it was well on it’s way. But now, sadly, it’ll be a station that you look back on and think “man I loved that radio station.” It’s dead in the Upper Valley. I think back to when I listened to Q106. I personally use to love that radio station. It was the most listened to station in the late 80’s/early 90’s. Then it got crappy. Sadly…that’s what will happen to my former station. So, to all the listeners, I am sorry that you and I both have to live thru this. I miss the station and I miss the listeners. I do NOT, however, miss the management. I am much more happy not working for them. The flipping of 93.9 is just one of many reason I am glad to be gone.

Local Rhythms – Autumn Brings Opera House Music

operahouse.gifI tend to have mixed feelings as fall approaches. The sun lover in me would rather feel the air warming my back than taste it on the tip of my tongue. But everything else autumn brings – apple picking, pumpkin carving and foliage color – make the bittersweet reunion with my jackets and sweaters easier to endure.

The season also means music. As summer sheds shut down and the melodies move indoors, regional opera house calendars become crowded with talent. This weekend is a prime example.

To the north, on Friday Barre welcomes one of my favorite country artists, Marty Stuart, performing with his crack band, the Fabulous Superlatives. On Saturday, the Newport Opera House hosts Stan Jr., a “Super Legends” journey through the decades, to benefit the Stevens High School Alumni Association.

Claremont will soon be rich with comedy, with last year’s sellout smash hit Bob Marley returning in October, followed by the Logger in November. Music-wise, there’s opera (Tosca), Americana (Jonathan Edwards) and a keyboard extravaganza (I Love a Piano) coming up.

Some of the area’s best music will originate from the Lebanon Opera House stage. This weekend, Suzanne Vega plays a fundraiser for the Upper Valley Haven.

The rest of the LOH season includes great jam bands (Little Feat, Bob Weir’s Ratdog), blues (Susan Tedeschi, Guy Davis) and Americana (Livingston Taylor).

I especially have my eyes on the First Annual Upper Valley Bluegrass Festival, running for two nights in November. It features the Greencards and Crooked Still, two of my favorite young bands, along with Del McCoury and Sam Bush.

Most exciting of all, Kate Rusby is coming to Lebanon next May. The name might not be immediately familiar, but trust me – you should get to know her.

It’s a long way off, but yours truly has long pined for this lovely, honey-throated English folksinger to make the trip across the pond. I even e-mailed her back in 2002.

To my delight, she replied.

“Come to Britain,” said Kate, “I don’t fly.”

One can only assume she’s conquered her fear – or located a very fast boat. In any case, I’m rejoicing, and you should book your seats.

What else is worthwhile this weekend?

Thursday: Pick Up Band, Claremont Farmer’s Market – One of the best parts of autumn is the bountiful harvests to be found at area farmer’s markets. The music’s pretty good too. Claremont’s weekly gathering in Broad Street Park has really started to swing this year. The aptly-named Pick Up Band is led by Springfield’s Tony Mastaler, a jazz guitarist with a lot of friends. He’s usually joined by Chuck Ober on saxophone, and anyone else he rounds up. Fans of Les Paul and Mary Ford, or the jazzy blues of Billie Holiday, will enjoy this.

Friday: Pete Merrigan, Salt Hill Two – Sadly, when summer ends, Pete Merrigan packs it in and heads down south to his Florida home. Friday and Saturday mark his final appearances until next year. It’s fitting he’s signing off in Newport’s newest. Salt Hill is, of course, run by the Tuohy brothers, who toddled about Sunapee’s Shanty back when Mr. Merrigan was starting out with the Mad Beach Band. Safe travels, Pete – see you next year!

Saturday: Localvore Equinox Jamm, Damon Hall (Hartland) – What a clever concept: a “localvore” is a consumer of locally grown foods. The show, then, is the spiritual child of farmer’s markets everywhere. It features jam band stalwarts the Gully Boys, Pete Meijer and the Black Bear Moon Rhythm Ensemble. It’s also a potluck supper, and anyone who brings a dish made with locally-produced ingredients gets in free. Tickets are 10 dollars otherwise.

Sunday: Suzanne Vega, Latchis Theatre – This art deco jewel in downtown Brattleboro usually shows movies, but tonight is packed with music. There’s a free pre-show performance from Lisa McCormick (email lisatickets@gmail.com), who’s just released a new CD. Vega, of course, needs no introduction, but it’s worth noting that 20-plus years into her career she’s still pushing musical boundaries. Her recent “Beauty and Crime” is an electric film noir of an album, rich in texture with a dark, urban mood.

Tuesday: Southern Culture on the Skids, Iron Horse – This band was the highlight of last July’s Green River Festival. At one point, their lead guitarist threw fried chicken to the crowd. I’d describe their music as the B-52’s meets Junior Brown – recall “you’re wanted by the police, and my wife thinks you’re dead” – playing inside the oval at a demolition derby.

Wednesday: Carlos Ocasio, Canoe Club – Carlos is like a lot of Upper Valley musicians, playing weekend sets with two different bands (Frydaddy & Gusano), while gigging solo at supper clubs during the weeknights. He’s been a part of the local music scene for about as long as there’s been a scene.

Local Rhythms – Will They Ever Learn?

shotinfoot1.jpgIt’s been an up-and-down week for the music business. Rhapsody recently merged with Urge, the MTV-sponsored download outlet that never did get a whole lot of traction. This week, the newly launched site began selling unprotected MP3 songs, which play on iPods, music phones – everything.

Even better, and unlike iTunes, their MP3s cost the same (89 cents each) as encrypted songs.

That’s good.

Now, on to the bad and the ugly…

Did you see the MTV Video Music Awards this weekend? After suffering through Britney’s train wreck of a set (intervention, anybody?), Alicia Keys’ questionable fashion sense, and a nauseating wave of forgettable performances, I think Congress should pass legislation forcing the “M” from the network’s name.

Finally, there’s (yet again) news of the industry’s sinister side.

A perk of doing a column like Local Rhythms, apart from the obvious fame and fortune (ha!), is the free music. Many writers frequently receive new discs, but lately they’re arriving with some nasty strings attached.

Things got scary for Erik Davis recently, when a pre-release CD from Beirut (an über-cool band I’ve never heard of) ended up in a pile, destined for his local thrift store.

Happens all the time – poor critics need beer money too. But the disc had a digital watermark – with Davis’s personal information – embedded in it.

An astute hipster snagged the unreleased record, and uploaded it to the Internet.

Each song was stamped with Erik Davis’s name. Almost immediately, he began receiving threatening phone calls. Fortunately, he was able to make peace with the label. But the gist of his story is that other record companies, particularly the biggies like WMG and Sony, aren’t playing so nice.

The new Mark Knopfler record, for example, is both watermarked and shrink wrapped with threatening language. This “Unique Identifier,” the packaging snarls, “allows Us to Identify the Intended Recipient (You) as the Source of Any Unauthorized Copies.”

I understand their compulsion to control the flow – sort of. I mean, what’s so sacred about releasing music on Tuesdays? What’s the harm in a little early buzz?

But baiting critics, music’s best friends, makes no sense at all. It’s crazy – if the radio won’t play new music, who else will spread the word?

The record business isn’t dying – it’s killing itself. Stick to the clubs – to wit:

Thursday: Michael Pickett, Salt Hill Pub – As a long-time friend of live music, Salt Hill occasionally attracts some amazing talent via word of mouth. Pickett is one such artist, a Juno-nominated Canadian bluesman with a gritty, authentic sound. Like many in the genre, he’s best when interpreting the work of others, but oh, with such twist! Woody Guthrie, as passed through the hands of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, for example. Free music doesn’t get any better.

Friday: Jeffrey Foucault, Hooker-Dunham (Brattleboro) – I’ve long heralded the talents of this amazing singer-songwriter. “Northbound 35” is one of a handful of songs I’d take to a desert island, and his work with Redbird is also sublime. What makes this show special is the inclusion of Chris O’Brien on the bill, a amazing tunesmith we’ll be hearing more of. In fact, he’ll be doing his own showcase at Boccelli’s October 12.

Saturday: Irene Kelley, Claremont Opera House – Nashville is a songwriter’s town, and there aren’t many singers who could get by without a steady supply of lyrics from the likes of Kelley – Trisha Yearwood, Alan Jackson, Pat Green and Little Big Town, to name but a few. But the clincher is the Kelley has quite the honey throat herself, and a knockout collection of true country music, is proof positive – a great kickoff to the local opera house season.

Sunday: Thomas Dolby and the Mafia Jazz Horns, Iron Horse – Though “She Blinded Me With Science” seemingly relegated him to the ranks of the one hit wonders, Dolby’s persevered beyond the MTV years – gratefully, considering what a mess they’ve become. Tonight, he’ll re-work some of his old songs and introduce some new ones, accompanied by a horn section that sits somewhere between bossa nova and Moby electronica – or Dolby electronica, to give old school credit where it’s due.

Tuesday: Acoustic Coalition, Firestones – A cool jam session that moves from club to club but spends a lot of time at this Quechee restaurant. It’s a coalition in the truest sense of the word, always on the lookout for new players looking to dip their toes in new collaborative waters.

Wednesday: Larry Dougher, Elixir – We begin and end with blues this week. Dougher typically plays with his rollicking three-piece band, but tonight it’s solo acoustic at White River Junction’s new home to refined small plate dining. There’s music pretty much every night of the week at Elixir – definitely worthy of our support.

Lori McKenna – The Surreal and the Real

mckenna-2.jpgLori McKenna is almost ready for her post-show interview. “But I need a few minutes,” she says in the Iron Horse Music Hall dressing room, “to help pack up the stage.”

A headliner serving as her own roadie is a far cry from just a few weeks earlier, when she toured America with country music’s first couple, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, and experience with more than a few surreal moments.

“After the second show in Omaha, we were rolling out and the circus was rolling in,” says McKenna, and in the space next to the tour buses were a host of Barnum and Bailey’s “biggest” stars.

“10 dancing elephants, ears flapping,” she laughs. “I was standing there and one of them was kissing David, my three year old, on the face. And I thought, how did I get here?”

“Our life takes us to some crazy places,” she says. “From that point on, I felt like we had joined the circus for a month.”

The mother of five is again home in Stoughton, Massachusetts, with her McGraw-produced major label debut just hitting stores and radio stations; she’s back playing smaller venues like Iron Horse and the Somerville Theatre. But the transition is a mixed blessing.

Playing a free lunch set at Club Passim the day after the tour wrapped was harder for McKenna than facing the previous night’s sold-out Boston Garden crowd. “At the Tim/Faith shows, they’re so far away from you and there’s such a massive amount of people,” she says. “It was less nerve wracking than playing an intimate show, where you can see their eyes.”

With “Unglamorous,” McKenna’s strongest CD yet, she seems poised for greater success. Over the past three years, her nakedly honest songs have caught the attention of not only Hill and McGraw; Sarah Evans recorded “Bible Song,” and label mates the Wreckers perform “Drinking Problem” in concert.

The song is a study of alcoholism through the eyes of non-drinker. With lines like “I’ve never touched the stuff/but honey I tell you what/you can’t count all the ways it touches me,” the song will strike a chord with codependents the world over.

McKenna didn’t set out to write “The Al-Anon Song.”

She was dreading an upcoming co-writing appointment with Mark D. Sanders (“I Hope You Dance”). “He kind of made me nervous at times,” says McKenna, “because he’s this big amazing songwriter, he has all these hits.”

“I was staying at Melanie (widow of songwriting great Harlan) Howard’s house in the guest room, and Harlan was watching over us all as he always does,” she continues. “I was really nervous. I had nothing, no idea in my head to deliver to this man. I was laying there, and all of a sudden, “I’ve been thinking while you’ve been drinking/I guess thinking is the last thing on your mind,” which is just such a Harlan line, popped in my head. So the next day I showed up and told Mark, let’s write a song about drinking. He said, OK, my favorite!”

“I said I’ve got this line, and I don’t know what it means. I always credit Harlan Howard for giving it to me. It’s very country.”

Sanders also helped McKenna find the perspective she needed to complete “Leaving This Life,” one of the highlights on the new record. It’s a sad and beautiful ode to her mother, who died when Lori was seven.

“I was trying way too hard,” she says of the song. “It was about perception, the way I felt when my mom died, and the way I feel now that I have my own children and how she must have felt. It was OK, but it wasn’t making sense, I was over-thinking.”

“It’s a perfect example of a co-write gone good. Mark tapped into some things that happened when he was a child; he had some loss that he had experienced,” says McKenna. “It was like therapy.”

“Leaving This Life” isn’t the first song McKenna’s written about her mother. In many ways, the topic informs most of her work.

McKenna recalls a conversation with friend and fellow songwriter Mary Gauthier. “Mary said, ‘I don’t think you can be a great songwriter unless you’ve had a really hard childhood.’ I said, Mary, I had a great childhood, my family’s amazing.

“She said, ‘baby, your momma died!’”

McKenna laughs at the memory. “I was like, well yeah, and she said ‘that’s bad!’”
“I said, oh, OK you’re right, it probably is. That’s probably where it comes from.”

Though she’s been something of a citizen of Nashville for the past few years, she feels like the same folksinger who came through the ranks playing open microphone nights in Cambridge and Boston.

“If ‘honky tonk, donk a donk’ ever comes out of my guitar, then I’ll know. Country radio has great songs, and some of them are really bad. Any genre has that. I think it’s a line you walk,” she says. “I’m cautious of crossing over and just being a formula writer.”

“A lot of people blame Nashville,” she continues, “but they’re writing the songs because that’s what the radio wants. You know what I mean? There are amazing songs that come out of Nashville every day that no one will ever go near because they’re too amazing.”

She cites Tony Lane’s “You Came Here to Live, You Didn’t Come Here to Die” as a good example. “I heard him sing it in the round one night and I was just sobbing,” says McKenna, who was shocked to find that the song had been kicking around Nashville for 5-6 years.

“Nobody would touch it – it wouldn’t do well on radio,” she says. “Tim and Faith will do songs that nobody else would do, but it’s hard for a new artist. They have to do songs that work; those kinds of songs don’t always work.”

Faith Hill recorded three of McKenna’s songs on her last record, which led to a few fun moments on the tour when the crowd sang along to “Stealing Kisses.” “That was really cool,” she says. “I knew they were doing it because they knew Faith’s version and not mine, but they still knew the words. The first time we did it, we went back down after we were done and Faith said, ‘I never got that reaction from the crowd, they sang every word with you.’”

“And the line that they loved,” McKenna continues, “they actually would clap when they heard it, was, ‘standing in your kitchen.’ When Faith released that song, she got accused – they said people don’t get it. Well they obviously do get it, because that’s what they were singing.”

Did she ever feel a bit awe-struck, she’s asked finally, working in the presence of country music royalty?

“No, it’s so funny,” she says. “We’d watch Tim out there every night, and he’s like Elvis. He comes out and the whole place freaks out. You would never know that it’s the same guy who was playing basketball with his shirt off three hours earlier, and throwing David, my son, up in the air. It just doesn’t affect him. It’s really good to see that.”