Local Rhythms – As 2007 Ends, Music Scene Healthy

transcent2small.jpgOne thing I never tire of hearing is readers telling me “I never knew there was so much going on in the area until I started checking out your column.”

From Bradford down to Brattleboro and all points in between, there’s plenty to do, it’s true. As I look back on 2007, I see a local music scene growing in leaps and bounds.

There’s more to see and more places to see it. Lebanon’s Salt Hill opened a second location in Newport and soon had live bands every Friday and Saturday. Two former Canoe Club stalwarts launched Elixir in White River Junction, with music almost every night of the week.

In Claremont, a door closed with the demise of Coyote Creek, another opened almost immediately when the Imperial Lounge debuted. Charlestown’s Heritage changed hands, but kept its focus, presenting Sun King, Stonewall and others most Saturday nights.

Bistro Nouveau left Claremont, but soon linked up with JOSA in their new Eastman digs, and presented some memorable nights of music at the Springfield Country Club.

Sophie & Zeke’s didn’t break stride, with live music every Thursday and Friday; by year’s end they’d announced plans to move to a larger space in Claremont’s Opera House Square.

Bellows Falls rose from the ashes of the Oona’s fire and the Windham’s shuttering. Boccelli’s on the Canal hosted some great music (don’t forget to pick up a bottle of craft beer on your way in), and the Roots on the River festival didn’t miss a step under new promoter Ray Massucco’s watch.

The folks who play the music were busy too. Syd, the Conniption Fits, Stonewall, the Stone Cold Roosters and Hexerei all released new albums and gigged steadily. Out of town favorites like Sirsy and the Alchemystics also put out new music in 2007.

On any given night music fans could count on good music: Ted Mortimer (who has more musical hats than Bartholomew Cubbins) gently picking his guitar, or Jason Cann playing solo or rocking it up with Wherehouse, or Soul Octane Burner walking a harder edge.

Sadly, a few groups bowed out – the Spiral Farm Band, A City Divide, Sleazy Listening and Transcent (although theirs was more a mutation with prejudice than a breakup). It’s a tough world; life gets in the way of making a joyful noise way too much for my comfort.

Through it all, though, the music scene thrived, with more good times ahead. To wit:

Thursday: A New Kind of Blue, Sophie & Zeke’s – The band who helped establish downtown Claremont as a jazz hot spot now perform as a trio. They mix things up very nicely, trading licks and keeping it smooth. Vocalist Emily Lanier recently left to pursue other projects, and has of late been working with Billy Rosen (another guitarist with a healthy Sophie & Zeke’s following). Here’s wishing her the best.

Friday: Pulse Prophets, Salt Hill – One of the many interesting gets for the pub on the green, this Burlington band calls their sound an “organic and celestial fusion of funk, reggae, hip hop, Latin, and Afro-beat, with a touch of electronica. Their musical stew has been known to pack a dance floor, which helps explain why they’ve been asked back again – it’s all groove to me.

Saturday: Hexerei, Claremont Moose – I’m happy to hear that bass guitarist Mike “Frodo” Bergeron has re-joined the band. Frodo really punches up Hex’s big metal sound, so I’m glad they patched things up They have a busy weekend, with an appearance Friday at Shenanigans in White River Junction, as well as this all ages show, which also features Escape to Everything, Blinded by Rage and Half Past Human.

Sunday: Assembly of Dust, Colonial Theatre – When Strangefolk (one of the better jam bands of the late 90’s) disbanded, lead vocalist and songwriter Reid Granauer formed Assembly of Dust and continued his work as a roots/blues disciple. This is a fine double bill, with Ryan Montbleau, who’s been described as “Martin Sexton by way of Van Morrison and Stevie Wonder,” opening the show. AoD and Montbleau will also ring in the New Year at the Colonial on Monday.

Monday: Jazz Masquerade Ball, Elixir – This small plate restaurant opened early in 2007, and almost immediately established itself as a staunch supporter of local music – everything from blues to honky-tonk to the Great American Songbook. Tonight, saxophone player Fred Haas and his singer/wife Sabrina Brown provide costumed revelers with a jazzy mix of enduring favorites from the likes of Gershwin, Porter, Ellington and Armstrong.

Tuesday: Acoustic Coalition, Murphy Farm – This loose affiliation embodies the Upper Valley scene. Most of the players at this weekly Quechee jam session gig with other bands, some with several. Listen to Acoustic Coalition recordings on yellowhousemedia.com, my favorite website of 2007, for a sense of the inspired fun that transpires.

Local Rhythms – Counterculture Christmas Songs

45290.jpgI tend to think a bit subversively around the holiday season. Perhaps it’s a reflexive response to wanton consumerism passing like a dark cloud through a time meant for joy and reflection. Another reason may be the many poets and minstrels who use this occasion to remind the world in music about why we should pause.

I enjoy the sweetness of Nat King Cole singing about chestnuts roasting on an open fire; “now bring us some figgy pudding” sounds like a fine notion, too. But I’ve never eaten a chestnut, roasted or otherwise, and I prefer tapioca.

These songs, however – made by some of my favorite rabble-rousers – speak to me more viscerally.

Here then, a short list of counterculture Christmas carols:

Happy Christmas (War Is Over), Plastic Ono Band – If not the first, certainly the most well-known holiday protest song. Unlike the times it came from, it’s more hopeful than hectoring tune, which may explain its current-day popularity.

Jerusalem, Steve Earle – Earle imagines a day when “the children of Abraham will put down their swords forever in Jerusalem.” I believe that refusing to listen to a voice claiming all hope is lost is the first step toward changing the world.

The Rebel Jesus, Jackson Browne – Doe the world celebrate Jesus while forgetting his teachings? In recounting the ancient world consequences of advocating for the poor and downtrodden, Browne – “a heathen and a pagan” – makes a convincing case.

Christmas in Hollis, Run-D.M.C. – The message is somewhat buried, but this song appeared in my favorite holiday movie, “Die Hard.” You see how my twisted mind works. “Each year we bust Christmas carols,” indeed. Yippee-ki-yay!

Father Christmas, Kinks – Released as a single in 1977, here’s a tune that fully reflected the zeitgeist of its moment in time. “Give us some money … give all the toys to the little rich boys,” sneers Ray Davies to Royal Jubilee England.

Who Took the Merry Out of Christmas, Staples Singers – The gospel family group really meant “Mary” – not “Merry” – in this 1968 reminder of the holiday’s Biblical imperatives. It’s also soulful as all get-out, a nice bonus.

What Ever Happened to Peace on Earth, Willie Nelson – If Willie had any friends left in country radio, he lost them with the release of this star-studded (Michael McDonald, Ben Harper, Jack Johnson) protest song last December. God bless him.

Love your neighbor, enjoy your holiday and don’t forget to support local music.

Thursday: Holiday Concert, Stevens High School – I point this out because I live in Claremont, which has a wonderful music program from the early grades through high school. The annual December concert is always a highlight. You should make a point to check out the one in your community, wherever you live. If kids stop making music when they’re young, it could be very quiet when we’re old.

Friday: Social Club Orchestra, Middle Earth Music Hall – This Upper Valley based collective, 17 musicians strong, formed last year to raise awareness and make music. Their annual “Holiday Harvest Revue” is also at Gilberte Interiors in downtown Hanover on Wednesday. With fiddles, banjos, guitars and happy voices, it’s described as a night of “rockin’ Christmas cheer.” Pxroceeds go to local charities.

Saturday: Wherehouse, Salt Hill Two – Jason Cann has a big following as a solo performer; he also rocks it up with his three-piece band. They have a well-deserved reputation for filling the room and the dance floor with the musical equivalent of comfort food – a lively mix of Van Morrison, David Gray and the occasional Spencer Davis oldie. Cann’s originals, and the list keeps growing, make a welcome appearance as well.

Sunday: Jody Ebling, Center At Eastman – The second installment of this year’s “Jazz on a Sunday Afternoon” series features, naturally, Christmas music – with a lovely twist. Ebling edges new and surprising elements out of songs you think you know by heart. Backed by Bill Wightman’s talented JOSA Ensemble, her holiday concert has become an annual attraction. Add to that the fine cuisine provided by Bistro Nouveau, and it’s a fine concoction indeed.

Monday: Celtic Women Christmas Celebration, PBS (TV) – Just one of many musical treats on the television if you’re not inclined to watch the video fireplace. They play things straight down the middle with standards like “Carol of the Bells,” “O Holy Night” and “Let It Snow.” Though my list of protest songs above may seem to indicate otherwise, I love this stuff.

Wednesday: Duke Robillard, Iron Horse – A founding member of Roomful of Blues (who play their own IH set on Friday), Robillard made the move to “all blues” in the mid-90’s after dabbling in R&B as a member of the Fabulous Thunderbirds. He’s occasionally taken time out from his solo career to work with stars – tours with Robert Gordon, Tom Waits and studio gigs with Bob Dylan.

Local Rhythms – Remembering John

abbeyroadsmall.jpgLONDON – Last Saturday marked the 27th anniversary of John Lennon’s death, and as fate would have it, I happened to be in London.   

On December 8, 2000, I didn’t simply react to Lennon’s murder; it was my responsibility to announce the sad news to listeners tuned into Q-106, as the Claremont station I worked for was known back then.

Opening my microphone and uttering the words “John Lennon is dead” was the hardest thing I’d ever done up to that point in my short life.  To this day, it still seems unreal.   

I often wonder how life might be were the so-called “cynical Beatle” still among us.

I pondered this while crossing the street (made iconic by the album cover) to stand in front of Abbey Road studios.  What magic did we miss?  Would Lennon’s wit have illuminated the events of our day in the same way “Give Peace a Chance” – or for that matter, “Instant Karma” – still inspire us? 

I have to think so.  But I can only imagine what Lennon, who never shied away from controversy, might have said about, for example, the strange bedfellowship of George W. Bush, Tony Blair and the Iraq war.

Even in a world with John, the hoped-for Beatles reunion probably wouldn’t have happened.  A stoned-out Lennon and McCartney almost turned up on “Saturday Night Live” in the late 70’s, and that’s as close as it was ever going to get.   

John Lennon was, at the time of his death, the prototype of the anti-pop star.  He wanted nothing more than to raise his young son and make the occasional record.  Life on his terms – it’s a model that precious few celebrities follow today.

The advent of technology – the Internet, digital music, mobile communications – probably would captivate John’s playful nature.  I doubt he would have stood in the way of making Beatles songs available as MP3s – if he’d had any say in the matter. 

The Beatles were first a revelation, then a revolution and finally, a commodity.  Most of today’s pop music skips the first two steps and goes straight for the money.  That’s why so many new songs are heard first on TV shows or commercial jingles.

If John Lennon were still alive, he probably couldn’t have stopped this onslaught, but I would have loved to watch him try. 

What’s to love on the local live music scene this week?

Thursday: The Samples, Pickle Barrel – The return of ski season means the Killington nightclub scene is once again hot.  Tonight, it’s the jazz-rock fusion of this Vermont group, called by some “the best band you’ve never heard of.”  The jam-folk of Rustic Overtones is due two weeks hence, and there’s a heavy metal show next month.  Down the road, the Zen Tricksters (minus ex-Dead chanteuse Donna Jean Godchaux) play the Wobbly Barn.  Time the hit he slopes. 

Friday: Spectris, Imperial Lounge – Now a three piece band, this is not the Spectris you’ve known through the years. The addition of Josh Mosher (KAOS, Curst) on bass anchors a more aggressive, guitar-forward sound that takes its cues from power trios like Tool (and Rush, which means they haven’t completely forsaken their progressive rock roots).  Check out “Entrophy” on their MySpace page for a sample of this new, edgier sound.

Saturday: Méav, Plainfield Town Hall – This show was originally scheduled for the Lebanon Opera House.  The former “Celtic Woman” plays solo, now with the famous Maxfield Parrish curtain as her backdrop. Méav left the band earlier this year; these shows are among the first she’s done on her own.  When last in the region, the immensely popular group played the Verizon Wireless Center, so this is a great opportunity to experience her traditional Irish music in a more intimate (and quite beautiful) venue. 

Sunday: Christmas Revels, Hopkins Center – A holiday perennial closes its 4-day run tonight.  This year’s production, “Celebration of the Winter Solstice: Music, Dance & Stories of Scandinavia & the Northlands,” brings cultural traditions from Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland and Karelia.

Tuesday: Billy Rosen & Peter Concilio, Tip Top Café – White River Junction is quite the jazz destination lately, and it doesn’t get any better than Rosen’s sweet, nimble touch on the guitar. Joined by Concilio, it’s sure to be a night of standards played with understated elegance.  With an early 6 PM start, this is also a nice after work diversion 

Wednesday: Beauty and the Beast, Briggs Opera House – The production of the smash Broadway musical doesn’t benefit from Disney’s unlimited budget, but with the veteran Brooke Ciardelli directing, it is quite inspired.  The music – “Be Our Guest,” “Something There,” the title song – is indelible, and the story is, well, a “tale as old as time.” In the hands of Northern Stage, one of the area’s finest cultural resources, that’s a perfect recipe.


Local Rhythms – Holiday Must Miss List

sonysucks.jpgThis is the time of year when the inevitable gift lists begin appearing. Pundits everywhere line up to pick the hottest toys, coolest gadgets and must-have baubles. I’m going to perform a different kind of public service, by pointing out presents to avoid.

It sounds cynical, I know. Ultimately, you’ll thank me.

In no particular order, here’s my Christmas Miss List:

  1. Fan Clubs – Everyone wants to do something special for their Hannah Montana-crazed moppet. But you’re better off taking the $30 annual fee that promises tickets to the concert and giving it to a scalper. Because that may be the only way of getting into the show. So says recent press reports, which tell of fans suing their favorite stars faster than you can say mileycyrussucks.com.
  1. Sony Products – I’m like a classic abused spouse when it comes to this company – easily seduced by flashy features, then slapped down by mediocrity. If only I’d waited for the Amazon Kindle instead of believing the E-Reader’s sexy lies, I’d be happy. Instead, there’s another busted unit in my closet full of dead Walkmans, Discmans and Watchmans. I really should call the shelter.

  1. Satellite Radios – The XM/Sirius merger could happen any day. In the meantime, a bet on either company is like a choice between VHS and Beta (or Blu-Ray and HD-DVD). Don’t get me wrong, I believe satellite’s ubiquity of choice may do nothing short of saving music. But until the smoke clears, there’s a 50/50 chance your gift could become a white elephant.
  1. PCs – Here’s a funny old computer joke: the code name for Windows 95 was Mac ’84. Apple invents, Microsoft reinvents – badly. Nowadays, virtually every new PC is sold with Windows Vista; a 500-pound software gorilla that eats resources like King Kong chomps bananas. Hence, the best new joke is the one about the perfect upgrade – a downgrade to Windows XP.
  1. The iPhone – 2007 will go down in history as the year of Apple’s biggest blunder since the 20-pound “portable” computer. The iPhone made many iRate when its high price was cut by $200 a mere two months after introduction. Even after the rage died down (an early adopter rebate helped), the cool looking device still had problems. No 4G, no expansion options – and partnering with AT&T was like custom-mounting an iPod in a Pinto.

OK, on to cheerier topics – like can’t-miss music:

Thursday: Belly Dancing, Middle Earth Music Hall – “Charlie Wilson’s War” is a book I came to a little late, but what a fantastic read it turned out to be. I can’t wait for the movie, with Tom Hanks playing the wild and crazy Texas congressman who may have single-handedly destroyed the Communist menace. What does that have to do with belly dancing? One of the book’s best moments revolved around a “friend” of Wilson’s who showed her hip-swiveling moves to the leader of Pakistan, a very fundamentalist country.

Friday: Jesse Peters Open Mic, McKinley’s Pub – The Morningstar Café’s former ringmaster is still in downtown Springfield, first Fridays in the basement of Penelope’s Restaurant. His trio plays a no cover show Saturday across the river at Charlestown’s Heritage. Peters recently posted an original song, “United States of the Blues,” on his website as a free download. The man has a political bent, as evidence by this down and dirty rant, which has a Roger Waters feel to it. Nice stuff, and worth checking out.

Saturday: Greg Brown, Bellows Falls Opera House – He began his career hosting hootenannies in mid-1960s Greenwich Village, and started Red House Records, the home of some pretty amazing albums. When Greg Brown straps on a weathered guitar and begins singing in his low moaning voice, you sense the essence of folk music. As if Brown weren’t enough, another musical family represents at Friday’s show: Sarah Lee Guthrie, daughter of Arlo and granddaughter of Woody, playing with husband Johnny Irion.

Sunday: Tympanon, Parker House – This is perfect “Sunday in Quechee” music. Samantha Moffatt is a wonderful local musician (hammered dulcimer, percussion, chromatic button accordion and voice), who often plays solo at Elixir, as well as shows with her Celtic-flavored folk-baroque group Bauchon. Tonight she joins two talented musicians from Montreal: multi-instrumentalist Jean-Pierre LeDuc (guitar, fiddle) and his wife, Mireille Girard, a singer and accordion player.

Wednesday: Hurricane Alley, Andre’s – Welcome to a new music venue name in the Local Rhythms mix (though the Sunapee restaurant’s food is pretty well-known). Hurricane Alley’s a versatile band – lead guitarist/singe Reid Traviskis calls it “ABBA to ZZ Top.” Usually a five-piece, they play Andre’s every Wednesday as a trio. I planned on mentioning their appearance at Newport’s Moose Club, but it turns out the Friday night gig is a members-only show (newportmoose.com lists all of their public events).