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.

Local Rhythms – Try an Open Mic Night

open_mic.jpgA reader called last week, asking for my opinion of some home recordings he’d made. He wasn’t looking to quit his day job, but fancied himself a singer and wanted to know what I thought.

It was good – his version of the Dixie Chicks’ “Godspeed” reminded me of Danny O’Keefe and Kenny Loggins – but, hey, I’m no talent scout.

One question he posed, however, was easy to address. “I want to take the next step,” he said. “How do I find a band, or someone to sing with?”

Two words, I told him: Open Mic.

On any given night, there’s a pub offering aspiring entertainers a chance to flaunt their chops. It’s a great way to experience playing in front of people and (as I told my curious friend) perhaps even meet a future band mate or two.

Local options can be found to the north and south.

Montpelier’s Langdon Street Café has theirs Mondays. Adagio Trattoria in Brattleboro persuaded longtime Mole’s Eye ringmaster Kevin Parry to take over their Thursday night free-for all.

Closer to home, Salt Hill Pub in Lebanon began with an open mike a few years back, then switched to an open jam session. Now they’ve returned to the original format; Jimmy Ruffing and Mike Benoit share hosting duties, Thursdays at 9.

Also on Thursdays, Sean Powell and the Clear River Band back wannabe pickers and warblers at the eponymous Clear River Tavern in Pittsfield.

Another Thursday hoot (quite a popular day, it seems) can be found at Keene’s Dark Star Pub.

At Skunk Hollow Tavern in Hartland, Wise Rokobili took the helm from longtime host Jason Cann – theirs happens Wednesdays.

The bluegrass duo Loose Change recently resumed their Friday night gathering at Pat’s Peak Ski Area in Henniker, which will run until the snow melts.

Local musician Jesse Peters hosts a pair of once-a-month open mic nights – first Fridays at McKinley’s Tavern (downstairs from Penelope’s in Springfield, VT), and first Saturdays across the river at the Heritage in Charlestown.

If you become addicted, there’s even a web site (openmikes.org) for finding talent nights nationwide (with helpful ratings).

The only thing better than practicing in the basement is doing it in front of people – so don’t be shy.

Here’s what the pros are up to this week:

Wednesday: Paul Rivers, Canoe Club – A guitar teacher at the Sharon, Vermont Independent School for the Arts (which hosts a student recital tonight if you’re interested), Rivers joined Boston phenoms Teddy & the Pandas near the end of their Sixties run, opening for everyone from the Turtles to Buddy Miles to the Kingsmen. These days, he’s playing acoustic at places like Canoe Club and Elixir, all the while hoping to find a blues band.

Thursday: Carolina Chocolate Drops, Hopkins Center – If the George Clooney character in O Brother, Where Art Thou? had been played by Denzel Washington, it might have prepared me for this band. In the early 20th century, there were many black string bands like the Chocolate Drops, playing and banjos and blowing into whisky jugs, but their music fell out of favor. You have to check their YouTube videos – this stuff is more addictive than microwave toffee.

Friday: The Moores, Salt Hill Two – Terry and his sons Tom and Toby bring a family tradition to downtown Newport. With their band Yer Mother’s Onion, the youngsters play a lot of jam band material from bands like Phish, Guster and Dave Matthews, so expect a bit of a tie-dyed vibe. I’m told that anything can happen at these hometown shows. Guests show up, requests come out of the woodwork and, oh yeah – the place is packed, so you should get there early.

Saturday: Kid Pinky, La Dolce Vita – The de facto house band at New London’s popular eatery, the Kid and his cohorts (the Restless Knights) play with the spirited conviction of the Fabulous Thunderbirds and the Radiators – ferocious, but with a groove. The bandleader is a triple threat on harp, piano and vocals.

Sunday: Willie Nile, Iron Horse – A victim of late 70’s “Next Dylan” fatigue – he was probably number 11 or 12 to inherit that dubious title. But his stuff was angrier and edgier than anything the Minnesota Bard served up. It reminded me more of Springsteen than anyone else. His first two albums were great. He’s still making timely music – check out his rocking meditation on the Madrid terrorist attacks, “Cell Phones Ringing (in the Pockets of the Dead”).

Tuesday: Ladysmith Black Mambazo, St. Paul’s School – Their Zulu gospel music first came to fame on Paul Simon’s immortal “Graceland” album, but believe it or not, their first gold album came for their first release in 1973. They were the first black South African band ever to achieve that feat. The group has been singing a capella since 1960, when they were known as Ezimnyama Ngenkani, or “the Black Ones.”

Local Music Revue – Pulse Prophets, Boomer Sellers, Hexerei

The sound of the scene – Local Music Revue is an occasional look at recorded works by area musicians.  Some are available for sale at shows; others can be bought on the Internet. 

This week, the spotlight’s on a reggae fusion band that’s making a big area splash, demo tracks from a Claremont group’s third album, and a peek into the audio scrapbook of some local rockers who’ve been gigging around town for over 20 years.

Pulse Prophets – Breathe 

Though not exactly a local band – they hail from Burlington, but feature Lebanon drummer/vocalist (and VTISTA teacher) Rory Loughran– the Pulse Prophets are building a steady following on the strength of some dance floor-filling sets at Salt Hill Pub and Clear River Tavern.

Their second studio outing matches a steady groove to a topical backbeat.  “Right Before Our Eyes” hits at voter apathy with a progression straight out of 10cc’s “Dreadlock Holiday,” while  “On and On” laments perpetual war. 

Though they wear their political hearts on their sleeves (“Every Day” and “Don’t Look at Me” are two other examples), the record contains enough tender moments to balance things out.  The lilting “It Would Be So Easy” is a nice alternative to too many songs about caving into temptation (Hinder’s “Lips of an Angel” is probably the most execrable of the bunch).

“Did What I Could” weaves the threads of the band’s many musical influences together – rock steady reggae, New Orleans funk and jam band abandon.  It’s the record’s best song.   

“Remember” has a smooth beat, but it’s a somewhat conventional song about love lost.  The album closes with “Come Your Way,” a soaring, optimistic tune which could fit comfortably in a Phish set.

“Breathe” is a well-rounded, hard-hitting album – a standout effort from a band on the rise (in April, they’re touring Hawaii – nice work if you can get it!).. 

Hexerei – Paid in Full

This long-planned, often delayed heavy metal album was originally titled “Pay Your Dues.”  But after more than a year of personnel changes and management snafus, the band demands a receipt with the release of this three-song EP. 

It’s red meat for the faithful, full of spit, rage and fury.  “Irritate” is the most accessible for the casual metal fan, with a nice melodic bridge punctuating a venomous chorus (“you’ll never break me/don’t f***ing underestimate me”). 

But “Paid in Full” never loses its edge. 

“Supremacy” features the call-and-response pairing of front man Travis Pfenning and backing vocalist Justin Hemingway. In addition to his room-shaking, bullhorn shouting, “Hemi” adds excellent keyboards and sampling at Hexerei’s live shows.

The final track, “Divide,” features staccato guitar from new members Derek Stribling and Ryan Whited, and moves along at a frantic pace.  

“Paid in Full” more than whets the appetite for the band’s next complete album. Through a myriad of changes that make their chosen moniker seem more than fitting, Hexerei hasn’t lost a step.

Boomer Sellers Band – “New Hampshire” 

Until a few years ago, “Tubestock” was an annual Hanover tradition; it’s also the impetus for this band’s move from Richard “Boomer” Ackerboom’s cellar (though tempting to think so, they didn’t get their name from the baby boom) to the bars.  In 1986, at Boomer’s urging, they played the inaugural festival on the Connecticut River. 

Since then the Boomer Sellers Band, a working class combo with a rock n’ roll heart, has gigged steadily at area clubs. 

This is a preview track from the forthcoming “Listen to the Thunder,” one of several songs front man Donnie Perkins wrote over the years.  He went into the studio with Rick Davis (Davis Brothers Garage Band) to make the record, but says the released version of “New Hampshire” is pretty much the original 1995 demo.

This autobiographical song is J.J. Cale turned up a notch.   It’s the sound Lynyrd Skynrd captured when they covered “Call Me the Breeze” on their second album – a jumping, rousing ride. 

The rest of “Listen to the Thunder” is, according to Perkins, “damn near as catchy”   – and producer Davis agrees.  Most of the original band are still in the Upper Valley – Jim Liss on bass, keyboard player Bart MacNamee and David Greenfield on guitar – and contributed to the record (and a planned end of year follow-up – “fire all our guns at once,” says Perkins).

The title track is a look back at growing up during the Vietnam era – Donny had two brothers serving overseas, and the war was never far from his mind.  “I hid behind my ball and my mitt … getting the blues over the six o’clock news,” he sings.  

“If you ever wondered if I listened to the thunder, you never even need to ask” is a sentiment that, sadly, still resonates today.

With the record nearly done, the Boomer Sellers Band plans to end its performing hiatus, and should soon be turning up in places like Salt Hill Pub and the Middle Earth Music Hall.