Local Spotlight – Photos & Impressions

Salt hill Pub in Lebanon resumed Thursday Blues Nights in late July, with plans to offer the best of local players like Ted Mortimer, Johnny Bishop (who has a new CD on the way), and Ed Eastridge through the fall.  Bobby Gagnier may become the most familiar face by the time the series wraps up in October; the fluid drummer is in several of the bands.  This week’s host is Arthur James, with his band Acoustic Mayhem.

Irish music is a regular fixture at the Pub, and last week featured plenty of spontaneous fun as friends stopped by to join Chris Stevens, Roger Burridge and Dave Loney for the weekly after-work traditional session. An intimate circle of players traded solos, and work up spirited renditions of timeless jigs and reels.  The music, like the Guinness on tap and the easy bar conversation, becomes a part of the room.  Salt hill’s Traditional Irish Sessions happen every Tuesday at 6:30.

Last weekend’s Championship of New England Barbecue Festival at Harpoon Brewery featured some incredible performances.  Antennas Up played a hybrid of rock and funk for an appreciative crowd.  Their original music went over well, and they did a bang-up cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition,” but it was their irreverent version of “A Boy Named Sue” that really hit the mark.

The band introduced it as “Kansas City techno” and proceeded to turn the Johnny Cash hit into something completely different, punctuated by a wild and crazy chorus of “now you gonna die” that sounded like a mash-up of the Sons of the Pioneers and Frank Zappa.

Before they packed up their van and headed to Boston for another gig, the members of Antennas Up gushed about the area (this is their second time through), and spoke of plans to return in the fall to promote their upcoming CD.

Boston-based Otis Grove followed Antennas Up with an electrifying set that recalled fusion masters like Robben Ford and Jeff Beck, as well as inevitable comparisons to Booker T. & the MG’s, with Sam Gilman working a vintage Hammond B3 organ.

Later, North Country fixture the Nobby Reed Project played a set of timeless blues.  All the while, beer, soda and cider flowed, while the sweet scent of grilled food wafted through the air, and the skies remained calm – a condition that fortunately continued through the weekend.  Reed has several upcoming Vermont dates on his schedule, available at http://www.nobbyreed.com, as well as an October 25 appearance set for the Polish Club in Claremont.

Local Rhythms – Short and Sweet

I may have found an answer to the nagging question of what’s ailing today’s music.

Wordiness.

Harper’s Index recently reported that the average word count of a Top 10 hit in the 1960s was 176; last year, it nearly tripled to 436.

Stop – in the name of brevity.

In 2007 it was  “Irreplaceable,” a 552-word behemoth, according to my non-scientific computer word counter, that topped the pop charts.

You probably knew Beyonce’s number one hit as “To the Left,” which is part of another problem. Hidden song titles have bugged me since the Who made “Baba O’Riley.”

But at least I can type “Teenage Wasteland” to steal it off the Internet, and it’s only 94 words long.

Perhaps it’s the Flynn effect – the theory that each generation gains intelligence over the last, that’s behind this word bloat; a trend that, if unchecked, will contribute to global warming.

But I think it’s an inversion of that idea: the less there is to say about something, the more it takes to say it.

Whatever it is, the tunes on the radio remind me of a fast food baked potato.  There’s so much extra stuff that it’s inedible.

I know you’re probably thinking I’m picking on rappers, but this started way before Jay-Z.  For example, I’ve yet to hear anyone besides Eddie Vedder sing all the words to a Pearl Jam song.

Let’s go even further back than that – what on earth was Michael Stipe mumbling through most of the 80s?  Learning how to sing along to 90 percent of REM’s songs was like studying for the SAT’s.

Like most tests, I forgot half of it the next day.

Whatever happened to verse, chorus, verse, bridge and chorus – three-minute songs you knew by heart before they even ended?

Can I get a witness?

Country music doesn’t have this problem, which probably explains why it’s the only music genre showing any growth among new artists.  There’s no one pithier than Kenny Chesney, whose hooks (“I’m better as a memory than as your man”) get stuck in your head like kudzu on a wall.

Ditto for Sugarland, Taylor Swift, Little Big Town or Carrie Underwood – all acts that broke through this century with short, sweet, sing-able songs.

It isn’t a memory if you can’t remember the words.

Here’s a few memories-to-be:

Thursday: John Gorka, Colburn Park – Gorka writes literate songs, rooted in place and time.  “Houses In The Field” looks at the costs of progress; on “Bottles Break” he crawls inside the mind of a denizen who wants nothing more than “to buy this town and keep it rough.”  “Mean Streak” would have been a smash hit if John Mellencamp recorded it. I could go on, but you should see him and get it for yourself. Heck, it’s a free show.

Friday: Northeast Kingdom Music Festival, Chilly Ranch – Eschewing the all-jam band motif, this festival (now in its sixth year) gathers together a wide variety of musical worlds.  There’s avant-funk from Screaming Headless Torsos, the Dixieland-fueled Primate Fiasco, improvisational jazz from Vorzca, chaotic Klezmer from local heroes the Pariah Beat, and the Americana of Rusty Belle.  Two days of music (there’s a complete schedule at nekmf.com) for a modest price.

Saturday: Barnful of Blues Festival, New Boston  – You’ll recognize a few of the names playing at this all day festival a few miles south of Weare.  Both Roxanne and the Voodoo Rockers and Arthur James have strong local followings, and Bruce Marshall touches down frequently.  Add to that the Love Dogs, TJ Wheeler and seven other New England area bands, and you’ve got the makings of a great day.

Sunday: David Sicilia, Canoe Club – I have no idea what he sounds like – Great American Songbook, apparently – but his list of prerequisites is a hoot.  “Available for retirement homes, alumni reunions (aged 70+), Bingo halls, and 50th anniversary celebrations,” says his press kit.  All he needs is a decent piano that’s, get this, ”in the same room as the event in question” – gotta love humility like that.

Tuesday: American Folk Music Lecture, Norwich Library – Bluegrass veteran Ford Daley, who ran a well-reviewed workshop at last year’s Upper Valley Bluegrass festival, talks about this history of folk music with an emphasis on the Sixties, a decade he knew well (despite David Crosby’s admonition that if you could remember it you probably weren’t there).  The lecture features vintage recordings along with performances by Daley and friends.  The event is free.

Wednesday: The Panhandlers, Lyman Point Park – The large (20-member) steel drum band from VISTA, the Vermont Independent School of the Arts, plays a free show along the White River.  If it rains, the music moves indoors to the Bugbee Senior Center, but wherever they end up playing, your mind will be transported to a palm frond-laden tropical paradise, complete with coconut-sweetened cocktails and Technicolor sunsets.

Music Biz Self-Destructiveness Not New

Jeff Balke has a great post on the long history of how the music business created its own problems – well before file sharing arrived on the scene.   They grew fat and happy from easy compact disc money as fans replaced vinyl, attracting financial speculators with no music knowledge, which created a hard stop:

What they failed to realize is that the CD gravy train would soon come to an end as people finally replenished their collections and went back to their normal buying routines. The years of off the chart sales came to an abrupt end and corporations were stuck with bloated record divisions and they had no clue what to do – the end result when you replace creative minds seeking talent with bean counters seeking profit.

The bean counters have run things ever since, gutting artist development and streamlining promotion (which fed the creation of homogenized, centralized radio).

One really good point he makes is that while record companies have leaned on catalog sales (Springsteen, Petty, U2 et.al.), they’ve forgotten how they became classic acts in the first place.  Take Tom Petty as a good example.  His first record stiffed, the second was mired in a label transition from Shelter to MCA, and his third was barely released (‘Damn the Torpedoes’ original Petty-bestowed title was “$8.98” in protest of a one dollar list price increase.  If anybody can find me a “1978 Lawsuit Tour” T-Shirt, I’ll pay big bucks).

The third time was the charm, as TPHB went from playing clubs like the Paradise and Old Waldorf to places like the Music Hall, er, Wang Center, and later to hockey rinks.

Without a firm label commitment, none of this would have happened.  Yet, the business is overrun with flash in the pan one hit wonders who wouldn’t know a deep catalog if they drowned in it.

Balke also talks about the single most destructive piece of legislation ever foisted on music fans, the Telecommunications Act of 1996.  This piece of crap has more to do with today’s state of affairs than Napster, Grokster and Morpheus combined.  Why?  Because it created Clear Channel, and paved the way for radio becoming a playground for Rush Limbaugh, Howard Stern and an army of talk show ass-hats. Centralized promotion and narrowed playlists resulted on the remaining stations, and interest in music was ceded to video games, cheap VCR movies and DVDs (isn’t that ironic?)  and a million other niche pursuits.

Like the Internet.

Bottom line, music was devalued and Napster stepped up and finshed the job, which started a long time ago.

Local Rhythms – Calendar Conundrum

A reader, upset that I’d failed to mention a bluegrass festival near his hometown, recently took me to task for what he perceived as a southern bias in my reporting.

Well, to call Chris Jones “a reader” is bit misleading.  Until last May, when he closed the Middle Earth Music Hall in Bradford, he was a force of nature in the regional music scene.  What he said deserves to be quoted in detail.

He called my coverage north of the 89/91 junction “spotty at best,” and he felt his club deserved more attention than this column had given over the years.

“I do hope that what we did here will inspire some others to carry on,” he concluded. “I would also hope that when you see or hear of a venue starting up that relies on admission revenues rather than alcohol sales, give them all the help you can. They can’t make it without you.”

Well, if I stopped writing tomorrow, the musicians I cover probably wouldn’t miss a beat.  I’m touched, however, that Chris considers my small contribution, mostly born from an inability to master the guitar, important in any way.

But his words raised another problem.  Plenty of people read this column to find out about events, but how do I discover them?  Sadly, the “Wallow in Clay Hollow” Mr. Jones wrote me about had flown right under my radar.

What else have I missed?

So I’ve come up with a solution.  I’ve asked people to email me in the past, but that hasn’t always worked out.  So I figure a little anarchy might shake things up a bit.

A while ago, I created a “Local Rhythms” Google calendar for area musical happenings. I’ve been, shall we say, spotty in keeping it up to date.  I intend to change that – hopefully, with your help.

I’ve modified it so that anyone – and I do mean anyone – can post an event.  The login account is localrhythms@gmail.com and the password is “localrhythms1”.

If there’s a musical event as   far south as Brattleboro, or as far north as Montpelier, plug it in.

This could lead to complete chaos, but it’s worth a try.

I’m not guaranteeing you’ll see every event in the paper, but many things could find their way into our recently revamped web site.

Chris Jones flatters me – I am so not indispensable.  But you, dear reader, are.  I can’t make it without you.

Here are this week’s humble suggestions:

Thursday: Bruce Marshall Group, Newbury Gazebo – Marshall is a versatile guitarist with an amazingly fast touch on the fretboard.  His band gives off a Skynyrd/Outlaws vibe when second guitarist Dave Cournoyer joins in, producing some serious rock and roll energy.  Marshall also plays a steel necked dobro with authority.  It’s the whole package – blues, rock and country

Friday: Starline Rhythm Boys, Barre Old Home Days – There’s neo-traditional, then there’s these guys, who still release 45 RPM records.  Wearing pegged pants and sporting pomade slicked-back hair, they play the kind or rockabilly that never gets old.  Today, as part of the weekend long Old Home celebration, they’re starting a bit early – 5 PM, to be exact.  If you like honest picking with an upright bass, this is your band.

Saturday: Out of Order, Broad Street Park – Three years ago, two Claremont teenagers were killed when the motorcycle they were riding was hit by a car. Robin Flaig and Justin Aiken had great hopes for the future; today’s memorial ride will raise money to help other young people with similar goals.  Out of Order provides the musical entertainment; they also appear frequently at the Imperial Buffet, playing new and classic rock

Sunday: Championship of New England Barbecue, Harpoon Brewery – This 2-day event is mostly about eating, but there’s a full slate of music both days, including the Nobby Reed Project, Bow Thayer and Antennas Up (also at Salt Hill on Friday), who play power pop with a funky backbeat – think Weezer meets Earth, Wind and Fire.  Did I mention food and beer?  It’s a vegan’s nightmare, with ribs, chicken and pork in abundance.

Tuesday: Irish Sessions, Salt Hill Pub – The Upper Valley’s musical melting pot, with blues on Thursdays and rock of every stripe on Fridays and Saturdays.  But it’s Tuesday’s early start (6:30 PM) musical circle of Celtic inspiration that’s closest to my heart – always surprising, always a pleasure, particularly with a nice pint of Guinness.

Wednesday: Cowboy Junkies, Higher Ground – The soundtrack for Prozac Nation, these guys will relax you to the point of catatonia.  It’s as if Patsy Cline disappeared like Amelia Earhart and turned up years later as Nico’s replacement in the Velvet Underground.  At turns moody, ethereal and transcendent, this family band (two brothers and a sister) has kept its unique blend of pop and pathos interesting for over 20 years.

Green River Wrap-Up

After Lucinda Williams closed out Saturday’s all-day show, Green River Festival organizer Jim Olsen was openly relieved.  “We’ve been ringed with storms all day,” he told the crowd.

But the weather, like the music, went off without a hitch, as fans were treated to one of the most varied bills in the festival’s 22-year history.

Highlights included a spirited set from Forro in the Dark, capped with the chorus, “if you don’t like Bob Marley, you’d better stay away from me.”  The Brazilian band played two sets, one on the main stage and another in the dance floor tent, attracting a large contingent of shaking bodies.

Gokh-Bi System, dressed in the traditional garb of their native Senegal, mixed Afro-pop with funk and soul.  It was quite a different sound for an audience in years past more accustomed to folk and bluegrass, but they seemed to enjoy it.

Eilen Jewell and her band did double duty, performing as the gospel Sacred Shakers early in the day, and ending the night in the dance tent with a set that ended about 40 minutes after Williams.

Big Sandy and his Fly-Rite Boys proved the biggest hit in the dance tent, with a barrio rockabilly sound that recalled Los Lobos and Eddie Cochrane.  Big Sandy was also the busiest performer of the day, fronting a stripped-down “Little Sandy” group and doing guest vocals with gonzo guitarists Los Straitjackets on the main stage, in addition to an hour-long set with his own band.

Los Straitjackets combined Dick Dale-flavored surf music  with tongue-in-cheek theatrics, wearing Mexican wrestling masks (recently popularized in the Jack Black movie, “Nacho Libre”) and using badly mangled Spanish to introduce their instrumental songs.

With Big Sandy, they played a rollicking, multilingual version of the Ernie K-Doe classic, “Mother In Law.”

Lucinda Williams’ set ranged across her last two albums, along with several unreleased songs (she has a new record due in the fall).  She ended with a surprising cover of AC/DC’s “It’s a Long Way to the Top,” which she called a “quintessential rock and roll song.”

Williams had the unenviable task of following Mavis Staples, who stole the show with a set that mixed powerful music with a social message underscored by current events and her own experiences living the changes that led to them.

She opened with a soulful cover of Stephen Stills’ “For What It’s Worth,” followed by the movement anthem, “Eyes on the Prize.”

She added her own lyrics to J.B. Lenoir’s “Down in Mississippi,” reminding the crowd of her experience marching with Dr. Martin Luther King during the civil rights struggles.  Recalling her grandmother directing her to drink from a water fountain marked with a “colored only” sign, she sang, “Dr. King tore every one of those signs down, down in Mississippi.”

She touched on her appearance in the documentary “The Last Waltz,” performing “The Weight,” and name-checking the Band’s “Robertson, Danko, Garth, Manuel and Levon.”

But her set focused on soul and gospel, a church service of sorts in the middle of a sunny day.  She choked with emotion while performing Pops Staples’ “Why Am I Treated So Bad” – a song he wrote after attending one of MLK’s sermons.

“If it weren’t for Dr. King, I wouldn’t be able to say, a black man is running for President of the United States,” said Staples through tears.  The crowd was obviously with her – when Jim Olsen introduced her, he’d pretty much called the election for Obama – but it was nonetheless a stirring moment when she sang the song’s final line:

“I think I hear someone calling my name/saying further up the road things are gonna change.”

The thread of history stretched from the stage across the field, and not a soul there wondered how they’d managed to avoid the rain drenching everyone to the north, south, east and west of them.

It was that kind of day.