Local Rhythms – Comcast News

anyplay-p-dvr-docked-small.jpgThere’s nothing like healthy competition to motivate a company to do better. For proof, look no further than Comcast.

These days, the one-time cable monopoly faces relentless encroachment by satellite providers. Verizon’s sale of their New England properties to FairPoint Communications will likely be approved, which promises to add Internet-based television to the mix.

So, at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Comcast unveiled a flurry of moves designed to attract new customers – and keep old ones.

How about a cable-powered video iPod? With a 60 GB hard drive, the Comcast AnyPlay Portable DVR is a nifty hybrid of a digital video recorder (DVR) and a portable DVD player. The device allows for on-the-go viewing of shows recorded off the Comcast cable system. Made by Panasonic, it should be available next year.

Expected in stores a bit sooner are Panasonic high definition televisions equipped with “tru2way” technology. The sets allow plug and play access to the full range of Comcast services – no box required.

Comcast also announced plans for tru2way set top boxes. This equipment, manufactured by Samsung and Panasonic, leverages DOCSIS (data over cable) technology that will ultimately pave the way for direct viewing of content from web sites like YouTube, as well as downloading of movies and other programming.

The long-awaited Comcast/TiVo marriage was finally consummated recently in Boston. Area customers with Scientific Atlanta boxes, however, will have to wait until later this year for the bugs to be worked out of the software update before the ubiquitous DVR technology becomes available here.

That’s one of the problems of living in a so-called “outer market” like northern New England. You have to wait forever for the good stuff.

Sometimes, it’s lonely in the sticks.

If we’re not complaining about dropped cell phone calls, we’re wondering when we can get our hands of all the cool technology that’s shown on the G4 Channel.

I’m beginning to think that my children’s children will see high definition local channels on the Dish Network before I ever do.

Heck, I can’t even buy an iPhone unless I lie about my address. How fair is that?

Forget about clean air and water. Who cares about low traffic density? Give me gadgets!

Oh, well, we have a great live music scene to enjoy. To wit:

Thursday: Draa Hobbs & Peter Concilio, Elixir – Hobbs gigged with a long list of jazz luminaries, did a stint in Al Alessi’s band, held forth at Oona’s before the fire, and most recently helped singer-songwriter Lisa McCormick with her newest album. His soft touch reminds me of Wes Montgomery or George Benson. Bassist Concilio is a fixture in several area combos, including the Emily Lanier Jazz Ensemble (the singer’s post-New Kind of Blue band).

Friday: Iron Box, Imperial Lounge – A Claremont band in the mold of Television or Smashing Pumpkins, Iron Box did well at last summer’s Whaleback show (some of that performance is up on their MySpace page). I’m impressed by their commitment to playing original material. Songs like “Leave the Day” and “Stop the World” possess an edgy mid-90’s melodic quality that you can both dance to and drown in.

Saturday: Saxton’s River Smackdown, Boccelli’s – One year ago, Bellows Falls’ renaissance began as Josh Maiocco and Jesse Peters shared the stage in this auction hall reconfigured for music. Since that time, the restaurant by the canal has upped the ante with many great performers like Nashville chanteuse Diana Jones, who plays next week. Tonight’s show is an anniversary celebration by two of the area’s best original voices.

Sunday: Super Bowl, Arizona – Let’s face it, if anyone’s going to be paying attention to music today it will be during Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers halftime show. It’s all about football – for the majority, Tom Brady is the man, and the Patriots are the team. To those few who grew up watching Phil Simms and the Giants on Vermont’s Channel 3, I offer early condolences. The song of the day is, naturally, Queen’s “We Are the Champions.” Go Pats!

Tuesday: Irish Traditional Sessions, Salt Hill Pub – This is the perfect after work destination, with a 6:30 start and the always interesting improvisations of Chris Stevens, Roger Burridge, and Dave Loney. An occasional top notch guest can up the talent quotient, turning the weekly session into a cross between open mike night and a Celtic hard court basketball game (with fiddles and bodhráns).

Wednesday: Chris O’Brien, Langdon Street Café – This singer-songwriter is worth the long drive to Montpelier, with talent to match his pedigree (Dar Williams, a family friend, taught him his first guitar chords). O’Brien’s gift for wordplay brings a smile, his easygoing, Steve Forbert-like voice is smooth as a cold pint in August – and he can charm a crowd. Chris is definitely one to watch.

Boston Rocks – “The Sound of Our Town”

soundofourtown.jpgA Review of “The Sound of Our Town” by Brett Milano

Boston music doesn’t begin and end with the J. Geils Band, Aerosmith, the Cars or the “More Than a Feeling” arena rockers named after the city.

In “The Sound of Our Town,” a thorough look at the highs and lows of rock music in the region, Boston journalist Brett Milano reports that it all started with the G-Clefs. The Roxbury doo-wop band won over the tough audience at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre, and had a minor hit (“Ka-Ding Dong”) in 1956.

The canon includes Freddy Cannon’s “Palisades Park,” and “Gangwar,” a dark rockabilly tune from New Hampshire native Gene Maltais. There’s also an early precursor to teen idols New Kids on the Block and n’Sync.

Teddy & the Pandas began as a Beatles-era boy band. Later, along with Ultimate Spinach, Beacon Street Union and Eden’s Children, they were part of the forgettable “Bosstown Sound” – a record company executive’s misguided attempt to package the countercultural music of the time.

The town’s most famous song didn’t even come from Boston. The Standells recorded “Dirty Water” in their hometown of Los Angeles, as a tribute to a band member’s Boston-born girlfriend.

These and other interesting anecdotes pepper Milano’s well-researched book. It’s widely assumed, for example, that guitarist Tom Scholtz grew Boston like mushrooms in his basement. The band actually paid dues playing area bars for more than four years, evolving the songs from their multi-platinum debut album along the way.

A Kenmore Square music club, arguably more famous than the bands that played there, also features prominently. The Rathskeller, known to all who cared simply as “the Rat,” hosted early shows by the Police, the Cars and Tom Petty, as well as the “Rock and Roll Rumble” – an annual talent show known as much for the bands that didn’t make it past the first round (Morphine, Mission of Burma) as those who won the competition.

For much of rock’s early history, New England performers followed more trends than they set. Bands like Mission of Burma, Throwing Muses and Morphine started to change that in the early 80’s. But being a visionary didn’t guarantee success; quite the opposite. Though the Pixies are often cited as one of rock’s most influential groups, they didn’t sell many records until they reunited in 2005.

One singer’s career ranges across most of the period covered in the book. “If the Boston scene has a single godfather, Willie Alexander is it,” writes Milano. In the early Sixties, a Rolling Stones appearance on the Mike Douglas Show inspired Alexander to quit Vermont’s Godard College, move to Boston and form the Lost.

Over a long career, Alexander briefly played keyboards in the Velvet Underground, fronted the punk rock Boom Boom Band in the 70’s, and worked as a spoken word artist. He turned 65 this month, and shows no signs of letting up.

Alexander also lent Milano his extensive memorabilia collection for the book.

Though subtitled “a History of Boston Rock & Roll,” the city is really a focal point for the entire New England scene. The Shaggs, four Fremont, New Hampshire sisters who were browbeaten into performing by their overbearing father, are perhaps the strangest band of all. Most everyone agrees they couldn’t play or sing a note, but that doesn’t make them any less loved.

G.G. Allin was both weird and dangerous. Milano calls the Lancaster, New Hampshire native “the most extreme rock monster who ever lived.” Allin died of a heroin overdose in 1993, after a career of shows that typically would only last as long as it took the police to shut them down.

Rather than weave a narrative around his story, Milano’s book often reads like a long series of Wikipedia entries. This chronological, band-by-band approach drains some of the spark from “The Sound of Our Town.” But the book is still an essential reference for anyone looking to understand Boston’s contribution to the world of pop music.

Local Rhythms – It’s All Write

30rock-picket1.jpgI’ve been thinking about the Writer’s Guild of America strike, and the spectre of little more than warmed-over reality television, reruns and poorly attended award shows. 

The voice in my head (which sounds a lot like Ralphie in “A Christmas Story”) yells in horror. No “Heroes” or Golden Globes, just six consecutive nights of “Deal or No Deal”?

The talk shows are back, but I agree with HBO’s Bill Maher, who said, “I’d rather have a writer’s room than a Rolls-Royce.” 

CBS will air repeats of Showtime’s “Dexter” sans profanity, which is sort of like sugar-free Godiva chocolates.  It’s possible – but why bother?

“Survivor: Goshen” – a new show about flatlanders trying to get directions out of a small New England town – is probably next. 

That one may actually be pretty good. 

But the rest of the stuff on the idiot box has been sinking fast for some time.  Locking out the few remaining working writers is simply the denouement of a very sad story. 

What’s an entertainment-starved 21st century boy to do?

For inspiration, I turned to the Internet.  

 “Stripped of our “jobs” – we are still writers,” explains “Prison Break” staff writer Kalinda Vasquez in the recently launched “Why We Write” blog, which is a kind of primal scream forum for frustrated WGA members.

Whatever the strike’s outcome, the creative impulse will endure and find a place to thrive. Indeed, the move away from these limiting confines has already begun. 

“The blank page is a magic box.  It needs to be filled with something fantastic,” says filmmaker J.J. Abrams, speaking at last year’s TED Conference in Monterey, California.

TED – short for Technology Entertainment Design – is an annual gathering of futurists who are determined to change the world.  Several “TED Talk” lectures, by luminaries such as eBay founder Jeff Skoll, documentarian Deborah Scranton and the aforementioned Abrams, are streaming on the their web site, subtitled “ideas worth spreading.” 

Don’t rent “Live Free or Die Hard” and hurt the cause of writers everywhere – this is television worth watching.  Listen to the world’s most lovable lawyer, Lawrence Lessig, ponder our children’s “read/write culture” and its implications for our world. 

“We made mix tapes, they remix music,” says Lessig.  “We watch TV, they make TV.   It is technology that makes them different.” 

Writers will likely adapt to this changing landscape, which encourages flexibility and rewards the nimble.  The same can’t be said for old institutions like network television, and their intractability in the face of this labor dispute could well hasten their end.

Live music is another entertainment alternative: 

Thursday: Putnam & Pirozolli, Sophie & Zeke’s – This jazz guitar duo trades lick with elegance and poise.  Their set starts early, and includes everything from Gershwin to Hendrix.  Gerry Putnam did a long run with popular band Night Kitchen, and Tom Pirozolli’s career has taken him all over the country.  He’s made 6 albums in the process. It’s music that pairs nicely with a bowl of chowder and a mug of winter ale. 

Friday: Wherehouse, Salt Hill Two – My favorite local singer-songwriter steps up with his band.  Wherehouse plays the kind of up-tempo selections from Van Morrison, David Grey and Dave Matthews that are staples at front man Jason Cann’s solo shows.  They’re just meatier, more fitting to a full dance floor, to a crowd that wants to get involved with the music.  You know who you are. 

Saturday: Stonewall, Heritage Tavern – Here’s a thought: catch Heritage open mike man Jesse Peters solo in Springfield at Apron Strings (a new venue – yay!).  Then, cross the river to hear Vermont’s three-man army, playing both electric and acoustic tonight.  Stonewall front man Josh Parker once tried going unplugged, to mixed success, for the staid patrons of Sophie & Zeke’s.  It may work better with this rowdy crowd.

Sunday: Fred Haas & Sabrina Brown, JOSA – Multi-instrumentalist Haas has performed with Oscar Peterson, Pat Metheny and Ray Charles.  He alternates between piano and saxophone, complemented by the talented vocalist Brown.  This “Jazz on a Sunday Afternoon” installment includes selections from his latest album, “Telling Stories,” along with Haas’s well-known improvisations.  

Tuesday: Richard Thompson, Hopkins Center – The title of tonight’s program – “1,000 Years of Popular Music” – is a bit misleading.  Thompson’s only been around for half of that (I’m kidding). His first band, Fairport Convention, started out playing covers, so reaching back to the 13th century shouldn’t be a too much of a stretch.

Wednesday: Open Microphone, Skunk Hollow Tavern – Wise Rokobili holds forth for amateur night in Hartland Four Corners.  OK, “amateur” is an unfair characterization; anything can happen, from excellent to execrable.  The one constant is the 20 or so minutes allotted to each performer to work through material.  Should you take your act public or stick to lip-synching for YouTube?  Here’s the place to find out.

MacWorld

Welcome to the greatest show on earth, live from San Francisco.

The keynote should have been held at the Warfield, or the Bill Graham Civic Auditorium – some place befitting the demigod aura of Steve Jobs.  Say what you will about the Apple CEO, he’s the only tech mogul capable of upstaging actual rock stars.

Or even an MOR icon like Randy Newman, who performed the encore to Jobs’ annual journey into the Reality Distortion Field, where products aren’t just tools or toys – they’re life-changing forces of nature.

A seat for Jobs’ speech to start the 24th annual MacWorld Expo at San Francisco’s Moscone Center had the cachet of a U2 nightclub show, and the revolution was not televised, or even webcast.  Exclusivity is an annoying part of the company’s DNA.  Someone should remind Steve that even sold-out football games aren’t tape-delayed anymore.

Of course, guaranteed admission cost about as much as a Super Bowl ticket. Platinum show pass holders had priority seating – for about two grand. 

None of today’s announcements are six o’clock news material.   Software upgrades (for the iPhone and AppleTV) may make the geeks happy, but most people could care less.  iTunes movie rentals? Ho hum – NetFlix also rolled out their version today.

This year’s sexy thing was without a doubt the  the MacSkinny, er, MacBook Air.  The much-anticipated subnotebook is a mere .76″ thick, a stunt Apple manages by eliminating the CD slot from the machine.  Software installation is done via the Internet, or through a wireless connection to another optical drive.

The built-in hard drive is a mere 80GB, though a solid state 64GB drive (now that’s sexy!) is an available option – for $999, more than half the cost of the base model.

The MacBook Air is fast (Intel Core Duo 2 running at up to 1.8 GHz) and beefy (2 GB RAM standard). Though not the first ultraportable, it could be the best.

But I doubt Katie Couric will be talking about it tonight. 

AppleTV is cheaper, and no longer requires a computer – movies, including those in high definition, can be bought from the iTunes store and copied directly to the device’s hard drive.   This upgrade is also available for current AppleTV owners, an uncharacteristic move for the typically backward-compatible averse company.  

Twentieth Century Fox’s plan to offer DVD purchases that include an iTunes digital download included represented the only paradigm-shifting revelation of the keynote.

More to come…. 

Today’s (No Longer) Free Download – Antje Duvekot

antje.jpgThe other day, in between watching the pundits deconstruct the New Hampshire primaries and hearing news of Britney’s latest meltdown, a snippet of a beautiful song came on my television. I recognized Antje Duvekot’s voice immediately, her tune took a moment or two to register.

“Someone is tossing petals in a stream,” she sings, “somewhere someone is standing at the foothills of their dreams….”

“Merry-Go-Round” first appeared on the independently-released “Little Peppermints”; a new (and to these ears, significantly improved) version, produced by Boston’s Flynn, is featured in a new commercial for Bank of America.

If you’re not familiar with the German-born singer-songwriter, that’s a shame.

I first heard her at the 2006 Newport Folk Festival; someone gave me her “Boys, Flowers, Miles” CD – a gorgeous, haunting bit of perfection; hearing it chilled me to the bone. Her lovely voice washed over me like a summer breeze, but there’s a brutal world couched in that delicate beauty.

I immediately predicted great things for her. But the music business, alas, is a fickle mistress.

So you probably don’t know Antje yet, and this commercial, featuring one of her more upbeat songs, is your first encounter with this singer and her difficult-to-pronounce name (for the record, it’s “Aunt-ya Doo-va-kott”).

That’s not surprising, given how hard it is for music not concerned with angst, bling or titillation to break through on the radio.

It’s a pretty mixed-up world when banks and insurance companies are the best friends a folk singer has, but look at what Liberty Mutual did for Hem. “Half Acre” (from the superb “Rabbit Songs” CD) exposed that New York band to a national audience. The ad was so successful that they debuted a brand new song, “The Part Where You Let Go,” on a follow-up spot.

Hopefully, BofA’s support will help get the word out about Antje, who at this point has no label affiliation. I can’t think of many who deserve it more.

Antje’s management had graciously provided an MP3 of “Merry-Go-Round”  for free download, but since the song is now being sold at CDFreedom I’ve changed the link. 

I’ve  posted the lyrics (mainly for the many “someone is tossing petals” search engine requests I’m sure are flying around the Internets right now).

The tune should also be available on iTunes soon. The best way to support Antje, though, is to see one of her shows and buy a CD from her. Skip the middle man, or woman as the case may be.

Merry-Go-Round

Someone is tossing petals in a stream
Somewhere someone is standing at the foothills of their dreams
Someone got a paintbrush, is painting over doubts
Someone opened up his eyes and saw the sun coming out
Someone was captive and found the courage to get off
From a boulder in the well, somewhere the rain has stopped
Someone is finding the place where they belong

Everyday is summer somewhere in the world
And the summer boys are headed for the falls to kiss the girls
With their impatient hands groping honey breasts and curls
They are filled with desire
And high in the hills there’s a baby being born
As forgiveness and peace wash over bruises and sores
People bridging the distance over nettles and thorns

Everyone aboard on the merry-go-round
Some things will rise up so that others come down
If the devil don’t dance, heaven won’t shine
It’s a mighty thick haze and it’s a pretty thin line
If the faucet is tightened up the love won’t flow
If the love isn’t bright enough the corn won’t grow
If the night isn’t dark enough the moon won’t glow

A rich man counting money, a tired man counting sheep
While the safe man counts his blessings, the hungry man has beans
There’s a million people praying, raising up their eyes
To what turns out to be the same god, the same sky
We are slightly scared of death, a little bit afraid
So we celebrate everything we can think to celebrate
We shall sing out loud to keep the hounds away

Everyone aboard on the merry-go-round
Some things will rise up so that others come down
If the devil don’t dance, heaven won’t shine
It’s a mighty thick haze and it’s a pretty thin line
If the faucet is tightened up the love won’t flow
If the love isn’t bright enough the corn won’t grow
If the night isn’t dark enough the moon won’t glow

Prisons will crumble and governments will fall
It’s the order of freedom to be preceded by walls
Cause the truth would be worthless if no one ever lied
So we carry our shame in the interest of pride
And we have all these questions to make us go roam
And we’ve got all this distance to make us come home
As the sun burns, a child learns, the tide churns, the world turns

Everyone aboard on the merry-go-round
Some things will rise up so that others come down
If the devil don’t dance, heaven won’t shine
It’s a mighty thick haze and it’s a pretty thin line
If the faucet is tightened up the love won’t flow
If the love isn’t bright enough the corn won’t grow
If the night isn’t dark enough the moon won’t glow

Lori McKenna’s Favorite Year

lorimckenna_350.jpgLori McKenna’s heady year – highlighted by her major label debut, an arena tour and a 2007 Boston Music Award for “Unglamorous” – ended on a familiar note, with a four-night residency at Passim.

The Harvard Square club is one of the singer-songwriter’s favorites. “You can’t imagine anybody being big enough to not want to play that room,” she said last week.

Because McKenna lives nearby, Passim has another, perhaps more endearing, quality.

“It was great to get in the minivan and drive into Boston every night and just pick up my guitar and play,” she says.

For the first of six shows, Lori and her band (Mark Erelli, Jake Amerding) swapped favorite songs. The all-covers night is an annual tradition for McKenna, who selected a pair of tunes from Miranda Lambert’s latest album, including the tender ballad “More Like Her.”

Lambert, says McKenna, “knows – in some ways more than I do – what she wants to be about musically, and I really respect that.”

She also covered Steve Earle’s “Someday.”

“My three-year old knows all the words,” said McKenna.

During the summer whirlwind of magazine articles and talk show appearances surrounding “Unglamorous,” McKenna tried to stay above the fray. For the most part, she didn’t see herself on television; that was band director Mark Erelli’s job. “I always make him watch everything and tell me what I need to know,” she laughs.

“I was sort of forced to watch ‘Nightline’ because my manager and his wife were in my living room” when it came on. “The piece ended and I said, ‘you know, if I didn’t know me, I’d like myself.’”

In fits and starts, she’s begun work on a follow-up to “Unglamorous.”

“This year will be focused on thinking about the next record,” says McKenna. Her affiliation with producer Byron Gallimore recently led to a fruitful writing session with Jessica Harp of the Wreckers, who’s a big fan of Lori’s.

Working with Harp was easy. “We‘re almost like the same person,” says McKenna – eerily so.

She played a rough demo of the sessions for her 18-year old son. He was sure it was his mom, not Harp, playing guitar. And, says McKenna, “I had my husband listen to it … he said, is that you singing or her?”

She’s not ready to become the third Wrecker, however. “I don’t think they’ll let me,” she says. “Maybe we can be a duo called the ‘Put Them Back Togethers.’”

Winning a Boston Music Award is nothing new for McKenna. Her self-released debut, “Paper Wings and a Halo” won in 1998, and she was honored again in 2004.

But the one-time indie darling says she was “a bit overwhelmed” by this year’s BMA for Best Major Album.

“It’s really strange,” she says. “It could have been a nightmare, this idea of stepping out of the whole Boston scene, and making this record down there with people who had never heard me play live or anything.”

Instead, “it was this fun experiment, and everyone was on the same page.”

On her upcoming tour (which stops Friday in Wolfeboro and Saturday in Northampton), she’ll never be far from her Stoughton base, playing a series of mostly East Coast dates that began with last Sunday’s “Hot Stove, Cool Music” benefit at the Paradise.

For setting up an itinerary that spans 12 cities over nearly two months, says McKenna, “My agent should get an award,”

“I’ll break down if I can’t be home every four days,” explains the mother of five.

“I’m proud of the record and I want to play,” she continues. “But those things aren’t going to get you through your life.”

Sony – It Gets Stupider

More on Platinum Music Pass, Sony’s misguided entry into the non-DRM world. Track purchases are not a part of the offer; each gift card is good for one album:

To obtain the Sony-BMG tracks, would-be listeners will first have to go to a retail store to buy a Platinum MusicPass, a card containing a secret code, for a suggested retail price of $12.99. Once they have scratched off the card’s covering to expose the code, they will be able to download one of just 37 albums available through the service, including Britney Spears’ “Blackout” and Barry Manilow’s “The Greatest Songs of the Seventies.”

Or they could grab the CD, priced the same or less, from the disc rack – which would give them something to listen to on the drive home. Where, presumably, they’re expected to download the same disc.

I’m speechless – no wonder Lefsetz hasn’t commented on this atrocity yet. I’m sure he’s waiting for the punch line to this stupid joke.