Today’s Free Download – Toni Ballard “From This Moment On”

pict-2.pngChicago’s gift to New England jazz, singer Toni Ballard has shared the stage with top-notch big bands (Nelson Riddle, White Heat Swing Orchestra), in addition to working behind the radio microphone and doing publicity for Berklee Music College.

With her permission, here’s a track from her last album featuring Larry Coryell on guitar.

From This Moment On – Toni Ballard (From “I’m Your Pal”)

Deals, Deals, Deals

picture-1.pngUMG has just about made nice with MySpace, according to news reports. This clears the way for MySpace Music, an enterprise offering music streams, MP3s and concert tickets. Propping up the gazillion unknown bands already giving away music on MySpace with a Led Zeppelin or Radiohead wouldn’t be a bad move. Here’s one anonymous comment:

“It’s really creating a robust monetization component to MYSPACE and having a focused music effort that could be the MTV of a new generation,” said a music industry executive who asked not to be identified before the deal is formally announced.

MTV of a new generation? Well, they’ve got the reality TV part of it down – without the television.  30 million lonelyheart scrapbooks – sort of makes “The Bachelor” seem like art, doesn’t it?

But until they fix the awful look and feel, I’m staying away. Thanks to all the DIY page-building tools made available to its denizens  (which is sort of like handing out SkilSaws to kindergarteners) there are more execrable sites per capita in MySpace land than anywhere else on the web.

Today’s Free Download – Ratdog: “Feel Like a Stranger”

picture-3.pngIt’s free and it’s the Dead – that’s worth some space on your hard drive, right?  Recorded last month on Ratdog’s current tour.  A little too much cheering, but a lot of impressive playing.  A long time ago, Branford Marsalis sat in with the Grateful Dead, and this is a bit reminiscent of that.

Ratdog – “Feel Like a Stranger” 

Local Rhythms – Little Memphis Comes Home

littlememphis.jpgMuch of the music business has become a gated community. Pop music is hand picked by executives; for the rest, success is a matter of dumb luck.

But country music is a genre that’s still open to new voices.

Maybe it’s a question of ambition – “American Idol” hopefuls desperately want to be stars. For Claremont native Dan LaPorte, hearing his girlfriend sing along to his songs in the car is satisfaction enough. Having the chance to work with a Nashville legend was simply a sweet bonus.

“If you’re doing music to try and get big, you’re going about it the wrong way,” he says. “If it happens, that’s great, but just getting on stage is what does it for me. It doesn’t get any better than to perform for people.”

He may succeed in spite of himself.

For the past few years, Dan D and the Burning Love, the band LaPorte formed with friend and bass player Todd LeBlanc, has done a good business channeling Elvis Presley for Upper Valley fans.

Now, they’re singing a song that’s all their own.

On Friday, their band Little Memphis celebrates the release of its debut CD, with a homecoming performance at Electra in West Lebanon.

“Let Me Down Easy” is a crackerjack album, one that easily stands up to the current crop of country stars, from Toby Keith to Rascal Flatts. From the first note, it’s literally stuffed with hooks.

I defy anyone to not hum along with the record’s opening cut, “Cutie Patootie,” by the third verse

The entire CD is a boot-tapping pleasure from start to finish.

It features a couple of Little Memphis originals (“The Lights Went Down in Graceland,” “Heart of Steel”) and several songs from producer Scotty Turner’s sizable catalog.

The material covers familiar territory in an inventive way. “I Hope He’s Good Enough” is a unique brother/sister song, while the rollicking “Sugar Daddy” features a Saturday date with a sweet young thing and her … grandfather.

Producer Scotty Turner hired a top-notch band to record “Let Me Down Easy,” including Travis Tritt’s drummer Dave Northrup, who will also be on hand for Friday’s show.

They’re pulling out all the stops for this hometown gig. Producer Turner, whose resume includes co-writing credits with Buddy Holly, is also making the trip from Nashville.

“We’re gonna make them like us,” Dan says. “They’ll be proud to have a band like this up here.”

What else is hot this weekend?

Thursday: Toni Ballard, Elixir – This White River Junction small plate dinner house has featured some fine talent of late. Blues, swing, rock – it’s all there. Tonight’s set showcases vocalist Ballard, performed with the Nelson Riddle orchestra and many other New England big bands, and recorded with Larry Coryell. Tonight, she’s joined by Jason Ennis on 7-string guitar and the sublime piano player Fred Haas (replacing formerly scheduled David Westphalen). Toni’s working on a new album, so expect to hear some of that.

Friday: Frydaddy, Salt Hill Two – This band’s front man is known as Carlos O’Casio when he journeys to Newport’s Salt Hill. Considering the many musical hats he wears, it’s allowed. Ocasio (that’s the correct spelling) plays Latin with Gusano, mesmerizing solo guitar, and sometimes dabbles in jazz. With Frydaddy, it’s straight-up, good time rock and roll, so bring your dancing shoes.

Saturday: Haale, Bellows Falls Opera House – Brooklyn born with an Iranian sound, this young musician wowed the Boccelli’s crowd last time she was in town, so much that this performance is in the larger confines of the Opera House. The band calls what it does “Psychedelic Sufi Trance Rock” – it calls upon the poetry of Rumi and Allen Ginsburg as much as any musical style.

Sunday: Tower of Power/Average White Band, Hampton Beach Casino – One sure sign of spring is the re-opening of this music hall on the beach. The first show features two stalwarts of urban funk, my personal favorite horn band Tower of Power and the equally charged-up AWB, who had a 70’s hit with “Pick Up the Pieces.” TofP’s brass backed many a hit in addition to their own gold records.

Tuesday: Jessica Sonner, New England College – The music business may be in a slump, but there’s no shortage of talented musicians, including this singer/songwriter, who says simply, “It’s all worth it for me when people take something away from what they hear in my music.” With her guitar and a sweet, bluesy voice, she’s winning converts across the country.

Wednesday: Open Mike, Skunk Hollow Tavern – Wise Rokobili and Tad Davis helm this weekly affair. If you’ve ever wondered whether you should take your playing to another level, this is a good starting point. Bring your axe and your songs. You have 15 minutes. The best part is that Simon Cowell and Paula Abduhl are nowhere to be found, and the food’s better.

Lili Haydn – Place Between Places

lili-places.jpgThe violin – please don’t call it a fiddle – is thoroughly marginalized in contemporary music. For jazz, there’s Regina Carter, but Robert Plant is meeting Allison Krauss in bluegrass territory, not the other way around. The instrument belongs either at a hoedown or high tea, and nowhere in between.

Then along comes Lili Haydn, a virtuoso who brooks no such boundaries. This is her third record in 10 years, and to say it’s hard to pin down is an understatement. The many layers of “Place Between Places” keep inviting one back in, trying to pry more insight from it.

“Strawberry Street” is a Beatlesque jaunt that could be a breakthrough hit (too bad she and her band had to shave a minute from it when she played it on the “Tonight Show”). Her nod to John Lennon continues with the raga-meets “Jealous Guy” sounds of “Saddest Sunset.”

In “Can’t Give Everything” Haydn dispenses with the electronica that marred 2003’s “Light Blue Sun,” delivering instead a raw musicality that’s equal parts Prince and Jean-Luc Ponty.

Parliament/Funkadelic leader George Clinton has aptly called her “the Jimi Hendrix of the violin,” and she returns the favor by reinterpreting his 1971 guitar fireworks on “Maggot Brain.” The album’s other instrumental, “Place Between Places,” is a trance inducing tour de force.

Haydn’s top-notch singing voice shines on the anti-war “Children of Babylon” and Tori Amos-like “Unfolding Grace.”

But comparisons don’t do it justice. A record like this hasn’t come along in … well, maybe since her last one. But with “Places Between Places” a mature Lili Haydn trusts her instincts and eschews surface sheen and needless window dressing.

“I’m nobody’s baby,” sings the violinist, “I’m just who I am.” Gifted and fully grown, Lili Haydn has made an album for the ages.

Van Morrison – Keep It Simple

van-simple.jpgNot to say he’s phoning it in on this, his 34th studio album, but on the record’s final track, “Behind the Ritual,” Van Morrison simply sings five lines of “blah, blah, blah, blah” – quote unquote.

Van the Man has a reputation for stream-of-consciousness, but it’s a bit much.

“Keep It Simple” isn’t as lazy as all that, but it’s a pretty easygoing affair – and by no means unpleasant. Morrison has gone out of his way to challenge listeners in the past, so the loping blues of “How Can A Poor Boy?” is a welcome respite.

The many strands of influence that inform the Morrison muse are all present here. The gentle ballad “Lover Come Back” blends Celtic echoes with gospel soul. “No Thing,” sounds like it was lifted from a mid-1960’s Ray Charles album – no surprise considering his last disc, “Pay the Devil,” was a modern-day doppelganger for Charles’ two “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music” records.

“After many demands, I’ve destroyed all my plans,” he sings on “End of the Land,” and for much of “Keep it Simple” the finicky Irishman is playing to the mirror, fashion be damned. In anyone else’s hands, that would be a disaster, but he manages to pull it off.

Other highlights include the banjo-driven “Song of Home” – though the fiddle’s a bit too buried for these ears. The jazzy, go with the flow “That’s Entrainment” best sums up the record’s toss-it-all demeanor.

“Keep It Simple” is as fickle as Van Morrison’s mood; he’s not stretching out, breaking into a trot or even breaking a sweat. But it’s all quite enjoyable nonetheless.

Counting Crows – Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings

crows-saturday-and-sunday.jpgThe latest from Counting Crows is two distinct works. The six songs of “Saturday Night,” recorded in New York City, are boisterous, balls-out rock and roll peppered with Adam Duritz’s wry bouts of self-analysis.

Ryan Adams lends a hand with lyrics on the goofy, star-fatigued “Los Angeles,” while the autobiographical “1492” shows Duritz can laugh at himself (“I’m a Russian Jew American/Impersonating African Jamaican”).

“Sundays” is the best of the New York material, a calliope ride of self-doubt, while “Insignificant” succeeds with more clever wordplay (“black as a bedroom/white as a lie”). “Cowboys” edges near punk rock anthem territory, and will probably sound great played live – the Crows are well known for reinventing material every night.

All the high-flying abandon comes crashing down for “Sunday Morning” – a stripped-down elegy that could and should stand on its own. It’s timeless music – Paul Simon could have looked back in longing from 1964 London and come up with “Washington Square” as readily as Duritz did from Berkeley in 2007.

The weary beauty of “When I Dream of Michelangelo” and “Anyone But You” provide two of the record’s best moments. The anti-love song “You Can’t Count on Me” will probably be mis-sung a hundred times; God help the first bridegroom who chooses it for wedding music without first giving it a close listen.

“Le Ballet D’Or” begins as a delicate flower, punctuated with mandolin and feedback strains, all roiling beauty, exploding by song’s end.

When you’re in the mood to beat up the night, to metaphorically cross against the light with a bottle in one hand and who knows what in the other, cue up track one of “Saturday Nights and Sunday Mornings” – but stop at track six.

Or skip to “Come Around” – the record ends on a joyous note after all.