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.

Sony Breaks Down, Offers Non-Copy Protected Songs

turd_in_punchbowl.jpgAnd then there were none.

Sony, the last of the major labels without a non-handcuffed version of its recorded music, finally relented, announcing something called “Platinum Music Pass.”  Business Week broke the story last Friday, and Guardian Unlimited elaborated on it this morning.

With only the Guardian details to go on, I’m decidedly unimpressed.  The Platinum Music Pass is a credit card-type product which, according to the article, is only sold in stores.

Sony BMG, home to artists including Beyonce, Britney Spears and Celine Dion, said on Monday it will launch a gift card service on Jan. 15 called Platinum MusicPass that will feature digital albums from its artists in the MP3 format. The format does not use DRM protection.  Fans will be able to buy the digital album cards in stores and download full-length albums from a MusicPass Web site after they type in an identifying number. The cards will be available at U.S. retail outlets such as Best Buy and Target.  “The introduction of MusicPass is an important part of Sony BMG’s ongoing campaign to bring its artists’ music to fans in new and innovative ways, and to develop compelling new business models,” said Thomas Hesse, Sony BMG president, global digital business & U.S. Sales.

This is innovation to Sony, the worst consumer electronics company on the planet.

This means, apparently, that you’ll have to drive to a Best Buy, plunk down your cash, take your purchase home (be green, please – don’t ask for a bag!) and then log on to download your unprotected songs.

As far as missing the point entirely goes, it don’t get much worse.

To paraphrase the washed up  English rock star from “Love Actually,” let’s just let this festering turd of an idea sit and sparkle for awhile, shall we?

Local Rhythms – Business May Suck, But Music Is Fine

As the New Year dawns, it’s safe to say that the music business is nursing a big 2007 hangover. 

It’s not just the declining compact disc market, which has dropped steadily since Napster arrived on the scene in 1999.  Nor is it simply the perceived cost of illegal downloading, which can’t be sued out of existence.

Even the concert business took it on the chin last year, down almost 17 percent from 2006.  This despite big tours by the Police, Justin Timberlake and Hannah Montana 

The industry, when it wasn’t launching lawsuits or layoffs, responded with a grudging acknowledgement of the inevitable.  EMI stripped copy protection from its iTunes songs, and last week Warner Brothers did the same with web partner Amazon.

Now even Led Zeppelin can be bought on the Net and played on any portable player – but it may be too little, too late. 

So the business is hurting – does that mean music itself is doomed?  Hardly.

Bands like Radiohead and the Eagles made headlines by taking business matters into their own hands, self-releasing albums or crafting lucrative independent deals.  But for every superstar like Madonna (who formed what may turn out to be a dubious alliance with promoter Live Nation) there were hundreds, if not thousands of artists bypassing the historic control of record companies to do it, by varying degrees, their way. 

All the while, they quietly and tenaciously reshaped the world.   With computers, music is easier to make; with the Internet it’s simpler to share.

As David Byrne points out in an excellent piece he wrote for this month’s Wired: “the future of music as a career is wide open.” 

To Byrne, who knows the business both as a performer (Talking Heads) and label honcho (Luka Bop), the record companies aren’t good for much more than up-front money.  Packaging, marketing, distribution and the overhead required to maintain them represent more than half the cost of a CD.

In these days of digital delivery, such services are unnecessary.  The businesses that provide them are worse than in trouble – they’re irrelevant.   

More to the point, with bands no longer paying for jewel cases, warehouses and shelf space, making music is cheap enough that giving it away isn’t crazy, it’s shrewd.

Case in point: many bands mentioned in Local Rhythms offer free songs on MySpace and the web. You listen and, curiosity piqued, go see them play live – no record label required.  

Here are just a few:

Thursday: Bang Camaro, Pickle Barrel – Winners of this year’s Boston Music Award for best band and song, this group strips away the excess from hard rock.  No, wait – they remove everything BUT the excess, and the results make Queen, Skid Row and G n’ R fans quiver.  Often accompanied by a 10-plus member “choir,” theirs is a big sound indeed – positively monstrous.  How ever will they cram themselves onto the tiny Killington stage? 

Friday: Jason Cann, Bistro Nouveau at Eastman – A talented troubadour with a fine collection of covers by the likes of James Taylor, Van Morrison and even Tracy Chapman (his surprising take of “Fast Car”).  I’m most impressed with his many original songs – none of which, alas, is posted on his web page.  If the world knew about Jason Cann’s talents, he’d be much more than a mainstay at local clubs like Elixir, Skunk Hollow and Bistro Nouveau.  Check him out.

Saturday: Squids, Salt Hill Two – Brian Kennell’s band of merry men (and women – vocalist Leslee Glidden) are the ultimate party band.   Every song they cue up is a favorite, and they play with love and affection.  That’s the reason anyone should make music, and it surely explains why Brian lends a hand with a few other area bands when he’s not thumping bass for the Squids.  Salt Hill Two, I should add, is a local treasure as well as a great bar. 

Sunday:  Fogey Mountain Boys, Canoe Club – When it comes to side projects, this one is definitely the topper.  Every musician in this outstanding roots/bluegrass band – Mike Gareau on fiddle, mandolin player John Currie, Pete Gould singing and playing guitar, bassist Lisa Rogak, Ford Daley on dobro & Steve Hennig picking the banjo – works solo or spends time with at least one (usually more) other area band.  We have a rich local music scene, and you owe it to yourself to check it out.  I love this stuff.

Wednesday: Mars Volta, Higher Ground – Pushing the musical envelope, this is not for those craving melodies.  They’re at times near industrial, reminiscent of Pere Ubu, Ministry and Nine Inch Nails, then veering off into a hybrid of speed metal and Captain Beefheart.  But what do I know?  Their uncompromising approach, which can be equally punishing and rewarding, has a huge, international following.