For The Heroes Concert 16 August @ Claremont Speedway

For Pat Kelley of Springfield, it began with an email, one of the many passed around by friends and family trying to understand the Iraq War.  Kelley’s nephew Shaun read the message, an attempt to describe the life of a soldier, and it touched a nerve.

“He responded to it courteously but strongly,” says Kelley.  Shaun, a Marine veteran of the first Gulf conflict, is usually taciturn about his wartime experience, so Pat called him.

“I don’t know who writes these things,” Shaun told his uncle, “but they don’t know what they’re talking about. This is what it’s really like.”

Pat Kelley listened, but not just as a family member.   The Springfield car dealer is also a budding songwriter.  Recently, he’d started working with Bucky Jones, who wrote country hits for Lee Greenwood, Crystal Gayle, Charlie Pride and several others.

In First Lieutenant   USMC   S h a u n   K e l l e y’s words, Pat heard a story that he knew needed to be told.

So he picked up his guitar and pen, and came up with “Did You Think of Me Today?” It’s a song about the rigors of military life – long nights, tasteless MRE food, desert sand and  “socks so damp, they’re part of my skin.”

It was also a reminder to not let their sacrifices become lost in our busy lives:

“Did you think of me today?
Are you proud of who I am?
It’s your freedom that I’m fighting for in this foreign land.”

Now it’s the lead single from “For the Heroes,” a compilation CD released by Nashville-based Bruce Allen Music, and the centerpiece of a country music concert scheduled for August 16 at Twin State Speedway in Claremont.

The show features all the Nashville performers from the record, including Mike Kidd, the young singer who recorded Kelley’s song, along with three others set for Kidd’s debut album.  The day will have a local flavor, with sets from area bands Little Memphis (led by Claremont native Dan LaPorte ) and High Ground.

Local singer Kyla Beardsley will sing the National Anthem, something she did last year at Fenway Park .

Other performers appearing at “For The Heroes” include Heather Necole, Nathan Neff, Charis, Ashley Leigh, and Elisha & Deana Shelton.   The musicians, along with label head Bruce Allen, will meet fans and sign autographs the day of the show at Kelley Sales & Service in Springfield.

Brendon Thomas, who normally specializes in atmospheric rock with foreverinmotion, will also play a short set.  “It could be a fun change of pace rockin’ the country scene,” says Thomas, who will be joined by Meagan LeBlanc for a performance of the Johnny Cash/June Carter Cash hit “Jackson.”

LeBlanc is the daughter of Jane Eno, a sales rep at “The Wolf,” the West Lebanon radio station sponsoring the show.  Pat Kelley is quick to praise the station for its’ support. “They have been instrumental in their efforts to make this promotion a success,” he says, also thanking Dennis Fleury for making his racetrack available for the show.

A Newport country station has also helped with “For the Heroes.”  WCNL Program Director Steve Smith interviewed Kelley on the air, and thinks “Did You Think of Me Today?” is a great song.  Smith also added the Little Memphis CD, “Let Me Down Easy,” to the station’s play list.

“One of the flag men at the Speedway gave it to me,” says Smith.  “It’s really good.”

Admission to the show is free for anyone serving in the military, as well as the people Kelley calls “local heroes” – police, fire and rescue workers.

“At times, the service men and women are entertained while on duty, but this event gives them the opportunity to enjoy and share our show with their family and friends,” says Bruce Allen.  “It’s also a chance for the community to show their appreciation and support.”

“This is for all of our soldiers,” says Pat Kelley.  “I think we have to step back, regardless of our politics or whether or not we believe in the war, and really understand what kind of sacrifice these folks are making for us every single day.”

“Honor the troops,” he says.  “I think the honor is by saying, ‘we know you’re there, we know the sacrifice you’re making, and we appreciate it.’”

And, of course, by providing them with some good American music when they come home.

Local Rhythms – Internet Radio Goes Local

Writing about music is fun, but it’s no substitute for the real thing.  That’s why I frequently point readers in the direction of Yellow House Media, a one-stop repository for local bands.  Dave Clark’s web site offers selections from 51 different artists, who perform in venues from Brattleboro to Burlington.

Let’s say you’ve considered attending this Sunday’s Whole Hog Barbeque, but don’t really have a sense of what the music will be like.  With just a few clicks, Dr. Burma and the Stone Cold Roosters will be playing on your computer speakers.

But with that example, you need to know what you’re looking for.  Absent such motivation, there’s no reason to visit, right?

Ah, but now there’s Yellow House Radio, a newly launched service that streams random music from area artists – endlessly.

I fired it up the other day, and within minutes I’d been clued to Loose Cannons, a Plainfield band specializing in acoustic rock, and family-friendly Django Reinhart disciple Lewis Franco – just for starters.

Finding out more about these bands took a bit of work. Artist biographical information is basically nonexistent, but that’s what the Google is for.

I asked Dave about this, and he responded unsurprisingly, “that’s gonna take money.”  His site is a labor of love, and with the advent of streaming radio and the “Homegrown” web/public access TV series, traffic has gone through the roof.

That’s good and bad. Keeping equipment humming along gets expensive, but more visitors means increased advertising revenue.   When that happens, all sorts of things are possible, from adding staff to an online store (though he’s avoided that due to royalty accounting complexities).

In the meantime, Yellow House Media remains the best friend local musicians have, and Dave is quick to urge any and all performers who’d like their music included on the site to be in touch.

Just the other day, he added a few tunes by Pariah Beat and the Conniption Fits, two bands who sit a bit apart from the rock, blues and folk of the Gully Boys, Gypsy Reel and Wagtail (one of my favorites) typical to the site.

You can’t love music without an open mind, Dave says.  Combine that with boundless energy and an unparalleled commitment to the regional arts scene, and you have an absolute go-to resource.  Do yourself a favor – visit it soon.

Here’s the scoop for the next few days:

Thursday: Tom Rush, Sunapee Mountain Lodge – The show and an optional dinner celebrate the 75th annual League of New Hampshire Craftsmen’s Fair, running through Sunday.  Portsmouth-born Rush helped launch the careers of Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell, penned the folk standard “No Regrets,” and recently achieved YouTube fame with his boomer lament, “The Memory Song.”

Friday:  Five O’clock Belles, Latchis Theatre – Five part harmony in a lovely Brattleboro setting.  This all-female band performs music from all over the world – Québec, New England, Appalachia, the UK, the Republic of Georgia, Corsica, Bulgaria, Hungary, South Africa, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.   Tonight’s show is a CD release party, which should add some energy to their performance.

Saturday:  Live, Collective Soul & Blues Traveler, Meadowbrook – Mid-90’s modern rock can induce either howls of pain or fits of pleasure, with little middle ground.  I’m a big fan of Collective Soul’s wall of sound angst-rock.  I find Live’s spiritualized shtick less appealing, though “Throwing Copper” is one of the era’s best albums.  I’d see Blues Traveler for John Popper’s ammo belt harmonica holder alone.  Each band plays a full 90-minute set, and the venue is the best in the region.

Sunday: Whole Hog BBQ & Music Festival, North Haverhill Fairgrounds – Three bands and a Memphis-sanctioned grill competition are good reasons to head north for the day.  Dr. Burma plays songs from their funk-busting “One Bite Won’t Kill You.”  Ted Mortimer and Linda Boudreault do double duty with the Stone Cold Roosters, and Vermont blues man Chris Kleeman plays his heart out.  Ribs, chicken and brisket are a nice, tangy bonus.

Tuesday: Bonnie Raitt & The Refugees, Capitol Center for the Arts – Politics aside (this is a benefit for Senate candidate Jeanne Shaneen), this is a great night of music.  Raitt is living proof that second acts are possible in pop music, and the Refugees is a California supergroup featuring Wendy Waldman, Cindy Bullens and Deborah Holand.  It’s Waldman’s second all-star ensemble; along with Kenny Edwards and Karla Bonoff, she’s made some excellent music with Bryndle.

Wednesday: Pete Merrigan’s All-Stars, Ben Mere Bandstand – What a way to spend hump day, as Pete takes a break from playing solo to team up with Sandy Alexander  (vocals, keyboards), Brian Kennell  (bass) and Bobby Gagnier (drums).  Merrigan fans should definitely visit his web site for inside information on a show to be held later this month (no details here, but admission requires a secret handshake).

Newport Festival – Not Folk, But Great Nonetheless

It was left for Steve Earle to distill the musical essence of Newport, Rhode Island last weekend.  He began his set by evoking Woody Guthrie on “Christmas in Washington” and ended with a scratch mixer sampling his voice on “Satellite Radio.”

Never mind that, over 49 years, the Newport Folk Festival welcomed everyone from Janis Joplin to the Pixies. The performers at this year’s gathering shattered every definition of the idiom.

Of course, Newport changed when Bob Dylan plugged in.  But if Pete Seeger wanted an axe to cut the electricity on that day in 1965, he would have taken a chainsaw to this year’s lineup.

That said, it was a powerful weekend of music.  The Minnesota Bard’s spirit was evoked by Jakob Dylan, who joked that his guitar was “acoustic, but plugs in” during an energetic harbor stage set.

While Jakob played with a besuited band (that bore a striking resemblance to the crew his dad brought when he last played the festival in 2002), ’68 Newport alum Richie Havens segued from “Maggie’s Farm” into the Who’s “Won’t Get Fooled Again” on the main stage, closing out a well received set.

Both headliners got into the Dylan-channeling act.  The Black Crowes’ played a medley of “Girl From the North Country” and “He Was A Friend of Mine” as a prelude to their typically noisy set.  On Sunday, Jimmy Buffet ended a pedestrian “Parrothead Lite” performance with an encore of “Blowing in the Wind.”

Rain interrupted things in a big way Saturday afternoon, sending many fans home early at the end of Trey Anastasio’s lawn stage set, and forcing others to jostle for space under the harbor stage tent during some of the day’s best music.

She & Him, the team of actress Zooey Deschanel (“Elf,” “Live Free Or Die”) and multi-instrumentalist M. Ward, mixes Lulu/Dusty Springfield Brit-pop with Indie-rock sensibilities for a thoroughly original sound.  The two shared keyboard duties on the rollicking “This Is Not A Test” after a stellar co-vocal on Ward’s “Magic Trick” from Deschanel and My Morning Jacket’s Jim James.

Later, Ward played guitar and sang with James during his stripped-down set of aching songs.  James was perhaps the festival’s busiest musician – on Sunday, he joined Calexico on the main stage to cover yet another Dylan tune – “Going To Acapulco,” from the biopic “I’m Not There.”

But the beauty of James’s solo set transcended all his stage hopping; the hypnotic “It Beats 4 U” hushed the crowd, while he and Ward’s harmonies on “Wonderful (The Way I Feel)” would have pleased many Simon & Garfunkel fans.  James’ spare version of “Golden,” his voice a dead ringer for the “Nashville Skyline” era Dylan (there’s that name again), gave the crowd everything it came for.

The festival’s overall tone was different by design, thanks to a team led by organizer Jay Sweet, an editor at Paste Magazine.   “We curated the talent with a certain psychographic in mind, as opposed to demographic,” Sweet said backstage while Calexico played.  “I wanted to feed a group of musical omnivores, people who meet their music halfway and don’t want to have it shoved down their throats.”

He said his expectations were “not shattered, but obliterated,” pointing to a set by Young@Heart, a group of Massachusetts senior citizens who cover modern rockers like Radiohead and the Ramones as a highlight which left him “teary eyed.”

But Sweet felt the resilience of the American Babies, a Brooklyn band who won the “OurStage” talent contest, provided the festival’s best moment.  After a raucous set on the smaller water stage (which hosted several spirited performances, including a mesmerizing one by ukulele master Jake Shimabukuro), the band was drafted as an emergency fill in for Damian and Stephen Marley, who were lost in traffic on the way to the show.

The wet weather forced the stage crew to lower the roof before the band went on.  “They had such aplomb, bravado and panache,” says Sweet, “and people didn’t leave – despite the weather, for a band that nobody knew.”

Other highlights included a laconic Saturday morning set from Cowboy Junkies, the musical equivalent of the slow food movement.  On “Never To Grow Old,”  Margo Timmins slouched over the microphone and sang, “I was gonna tell you about my premonition/but I changed my mind and went back to bed,” and no one wondered why.

Richie Havens’ pointedly political set moved the crowd, as he covered Jackson Browne’s “Lives in the Balance,” a song that speaks to today’s anti-war fervor as much as the 1980s Central American conflict that inspired it.  Havens also did a surprising rendition of Gary Wright’s “Love Is Alive.”

Brandi Carlile stole the show Sunday, blending “Gray’s Anatomy” hits like “Turpentine” and “I Was Made for You” with a cello-fueled version of “Folsom Prison Blues.”  She was unprepared when fans demanded an encore – “I didn’t know we were supposed to come back out,” she told them – but pleased the sun-soaked crowd, estimated at 7,500 on both days, with a well-chosen cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

Gillian Welch and David Rawlings did their time-traveling musical prestidigitation to perfection, but would have been better served by trading places in the more intimate harbor tent with Son Volt, whose big sound belonged on the main stage.

Welch and Rawlings also joined Levon Helm at the end of his performance for “The Weight,” and later sang “Elvis Presley Blues” with Jimmy Buffett, one of the only inspired moments during his tepid, festival closing set.

Buffett had teased that his appearance would vary from his usual shtick.  He told the Boston Globe in April that he might bring along just one musician, in a nod to his folk music roots.

But that was all a memory Sunday.

As the crowd bounced around Land Shark Beer beach balls (a brand he made sure to name-check during “It’s 5 O’clock Somewhere”), Buffett shoehorned local Newport landmarks into the same songs he regionalizes for every Coral Reefer Band show.   The band, nine members strong (only the horn section had the night off), played along dutifully.

Welch and Rawlings, it should be noted, delighted in every second on stage with Buffett.  But when they left, many in the crowd followed, sensing no more surprises.

Earlier in the day, a skywriter spelled out the name of a Connecticut casino where Buffett recently opened a restaurant.  The pilot apparently had two customers – a plug for an insurance company immediately followed.

“HOT SUMMER FUN AT MOHEGAN SUN,” read the words, and as they dissipated, “GEICO GEICO GEICO” – a sad corporate haiku totally at odds with the day’s mood, and Newport’s storied history.

Fortunately, the rest of the weekend was nothing like that one bit of hackery.

Listen to audio streams of Newport sets on, which is also offering most of the performances as free podcasts  for download on iTunes.

Johnny B and the Goodes – “Have Mercy”

A CD Review by Michael Witthaus

Harp player Johnny Bishop is a steady presence in the area music scene since moving north from Virginia a few years back.  Blues fans that have enjoyed him in bands like Blue Monday and Have Blues Will Travel, will be pleased with this CD, the first from Bishop’s main band.

“Have Mercy” features songs from rock and blues mainstays like Muddy Waters (“Honey Bee” and “Trouble No More,” popularized by the Allman Brothers) and Fats Domino  (“I’m Ready”), but the emphasis is on Bishop’s harmonica heroes, Little Walter in particular.

Of particular note are covers of two shuffle blues,  “It’s Too Late Brother” and “Mellow Down Easy.” On the first, Bishop smoothes a bit of the gravel from Little Walter’s vocals. He channels Willie Dixon’s smoky singing  style on the latter, helped by some pop and flash from guest guitarist Ted Mortimer.

Throughout, Bishop punches up the harp playing on each of the classics he takes on, adding a modern sheen that recalls Magic Dick of the J. Geils Band and Blues Traveler’s John Popper.

He gives the disc’s other Little Walter track, the slow burning instrumental “Blue Lights,” some jazzy textures, admirably anchored by the rhythm duo of bass player Brian Kennell  (of the Squids) and drummer Bobby Gagnier.

On “Hard Hearted Woman,” a slow blues number written by Walter Horton (harp player and self-proclaimed tutor to both Little Walter and Sonny Boy Williamson) , Ed Eastridge’s nimble touch on guitar,  along with Bishop’s soulful vocals and scale-stretching harmonica antics, provide the high moments.

Bishop strips all restraint from “Nine Below Zero,” transforming Sonny Boy Williamson’s smooth, steady (and oft-covered) original into a rock and roll rave up.  He then  takes “Good Rockin’ Tonight”  in the opposite direction, bringing a languid feel to the buoyant Roy Brown tune.

“Mood Tuesday” is another surprise, one of two Bishop originals on “Have Mercy.”   The acoustic song features guest guitarist Wally Wysk offering up flamenco flourishes  in an acoustic stew that’s part Duke Ellington, and part Django Reinhart.  The shift is a bit jarring, but it works nonetheless.

The other original, “I’m Lonesome, “ is a straight-up blues rock number with a Fabulous Thunderbirds energy.  It will undoubtedly fill a few Upper Valley dance floors before too long – beginning  with a CD release party this Friday at Salt Hill Pub in Lebanon.

The production, shared by Bishop and guitarist Ed Eastridge, is crisp throughout.

Johnny B. and the Goodes play a CD Release Party At Salt Hill Pub Friday (9 PM, FREE ADMISSION)

Newport – A Folk Festival in Name Only

Looking at this year’s lineup, you begin to wonder whether it might have been better if Pete Seeger had gotten his hands on an axe back in ’65. This is a folk festival in name only. There’s a Six Degrees of Separation quality to headliner Black Crowes – “well, Jimmy Page played with them, and he was in Led Zeppelin with Robert Plant, who’s touring with Alison Krausse” – but Newport ain’t Bonarroo, so what is a derivative blues band doing topping the bill?

Sunday, Jimmy Buffett takes a break from gouging yuppies to do a stripped-down set, which is promising in a fish out of water way. Speaking of fish, or Phish, to be precise, Trey Anastasio alone on stage should be worth a look.

OK, it was probably time for a change from the endless years of the Indigo Girls. But the full-tilt Gilded Age aspect of this so-called “Folk Festival” is truly irksome. Is it appropriate to lob grapes and other fresh produce at the nouveau riche who shell out $500 for a chair on prime lawn space? That’s the going rate for VIP seating, which will eclipse half the main seating area.

In a world where scalpers have billboards, this is standard operating procedure. I suppose next year’s headliners will be the Eagles and an unplugged version of Aerosmith.

Just don’t call it the Newport Folk Festival.