Local Rhythms – A Genius Move

I have over 17,000 songs in my iTunes library.  Some have been played a lot, others once or twice.  Hitting “shuffle” is a great way to revisit a track that may have slipped by the first time, but it’s not very scientific.

Last week, when Apple announced an upgrade to their popular music software, I immediately latched on to the new “Genius” feature.  Pick a song, click on the Jimmy Neutron button, and presto!  A playlist of like-minded music appears.

Choosing a Genesis tune will spawn tracks by Rush, Yes and ELP; pick the Decembrists, you’ll get Broken Social Scene, Stars and New Pornographers.

When I’m in the mood for Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, a random Stooges track can really bust up the mood. With shuffle, everything gets mixed willy-nilly.  Though I’m pretty sure my iPod play more Beatles songs by design.

Genius lets you put the peanut butter with the jelly, and leave the mayo for bologna.

It also (big surprise) suggests songs for purchase at the iTunes Music Store.

That seems a lot like Pandora, the Internet radio service that’s already installed on many an iPhone and iPod Touch.

But Genius is based on stuff that you, and others like you, already own.

Like Pandora, the information iTunes sends to Apple includes data about what you listen to and how often, as well as the playlists you make.  Both services make recommendations and provide an easy path to purchase digital music.

But there are a lot more iTunes users in the world.   The music store has sold 300 million tracks since its inception.  5 or 10 percent of the tracks on a typical iPod are bought from digital music stores.

So that mean there’s upwards of 3 to 4 billion songs in the iTunes listener “cloud” for Genius to study.  As listener data aggregates, playlist accuracy improves.

Forget the election, this is the kind of polling data I’m interested in.

Genius lets you delete songs from playlists before saving them, but it’s not clear whether information about that behavior is sent to Apple.  More straightforward is Pandora’s ‘thumbs up or down’ method of rejecting recommendations.

But size matters.

Two factors govern the future of music.  First, understand the customer.  Second, and most important, earn the customer’s trust.

As long as iTunes users believe Apple isn’t colluding with the RIAA or selling customer lists, this is a Genius move.

What’s up this weekend?

Thursday: Chris Kleeman Band, Inn at Weathersfield – A nice combination of award-winning food and an ace blues man, who traverses the history of American music and gives each performance a unique stamp.  Kleeman finishes the series he began back in May with selections from Elmore James, Muddy Waters, Blind Willie McTell and B.B. King (who produced Chris’s first album back in 1970. Note the early (6:30 PM) start time.

Friday: Loose Cannons Acoustic, Salt hill II – These guys rock pretty hard for an all acoustic band, covering guys like Clapton and the Beatles, as well as grooves from Bob Marley and Stray Cats rockabilly.  Eclectic is the word that best describes them, with a musical outlook spanning decades and styles.  Of course, the room they’re playing is pretty nice too, with great pints and an excellent pub menu, as well as a fine restaurant downstairs.

Saturday: Humane Society Benefit, Hit or Miss – The hard rock community converges at this Rockingham club for another good cause.  The show includes Stonewall, d’Brotherhood, TranScent, Bow to None, Anger Rising, Mercy Machine and (considering the beneficiary) the most aptly named of the bunch – Mongrel.  Proceeds benefit the Springfield Humane Society.  Seeing all those hard-edged rockers on a poster with cute little kitten eyes – priceless.

Sunday: Sunapee SunFest, Mount Sunapee – New York City based singer-songwriter Shannon Corey, with plenty of Tori/Alanis influences, headlines the music portion of this day long celebration of sustainable living and holistic health. I wonder which friolator oil works better as a bio-diesel fuel – trans-fat or non?  Ponder these questions while enjoying Click Horning, Carey Lee Rush and others.

Tuesday: Jason Cann, Firestones – My favorite unrecorded area singer-songwriter plays while special guest chefs cook (featured every Tuesday in September), though I like the simple pleasures at this Quechee restaurant.  Their burgers and beers are top-notch.  There’s plenty going on every night at Firestones, including a Cann-hosted open mike night each Thursday.

Wednesday: Sonya Kitchell, Higher Ground –
Touring behind the recently released “This Storm,” Kitchell originally got attention for her precocious jazz singing as a 16-year old in Northampton clubs.  She’s 19 now, and rocking harder, though she keeps it jazzy on “From Here to Now,” and “Walk Away” is a gorgeous ballad.  Mostly, though, she’s copping a rocked-up Suzanne Vega pose.  I like it.

Lenny Clarke – The Prince of Boston Comedy

When comedy was king, Lenny Clarke held court as the prince of Boston.

“The thing was, I was the man, because I was crazy,” says Clarke. “I was a nut job.  I had no training, no idea what I was doing.  Because of that, I blazed a trail in Boston comedy where the only rule was, there was no rules.”

Clarke hosted an open mike night at Cambridge’s Ding Ho restaurant that launched the careers of many comedians, including Steven Wright and Denis Leary.  “We we’d get as many as 35 comics a night, Paula Poundstone, Steve Sweeney, Bobcat Golthwaite, Janeane Garofalo, Gavin would try out their stuff.”

Week after week, the same crowd came to watch, Clarke says. “It would force me to come up with new material.”

“The Boston crowds are what made it so good, because they wouldn’t settle for mediocrity.   They would boo you off the stage.”

The Cambridge-born comic, who turned 55 Tuesday, has mellowed considerably since his mid-80’s heyday, a time when he and other successful comics were, says Clarke,  “rock stars.  It was unbelievable …the best tables, best champagne, women, drugs, you name it.  It was the greatest years of my life.  It will never be copied.”

“Now I’m clean and sober for a long time, and thank god for that. But I was loony – there wasn’t anything I wouldn’t try.”

These days, he’s busy with movies and television, currently playing Uncle Teddy on “Rescue Me.” When the series began, Denis Leary (who he also worked with on “The Job”) wrote the role of the chief for Clarke, but Lenny had committed to another series (“It’s All Relative”), which ended up only lasting a season.

He was slated to be in the cast of the upcoming ABC series, “Life On Mars,” but after a successful pilot episode, the show was reworked. Clarke, director David Kelley and three other actors were replaced.

“Let me tell you,” says Lenny, “I’ve had more failed pilots then the Iraqi Air Force.”

Clarke brings his stand-up act to the Claremont Opera House this Saturday (September 20).  He’s looking forward to performing for a “theater crowd – I’ve worked in places with a cage, where people are throwing bottles.”

“I’m only hoping that that people want to be entertained,” he says, “where they’ll let me spin my string of pearls.  People heckle me because they think they’re helping.  After 35 years of doing this, I don’t need any help.  Let me entertain you.”

His act covers his life – growing up, his wild ride as a comic and pals like Leary.  He stays away from politics. “I’m not one of those so-called celebrities who want to shove their views down your throat.  That’s why we vote in private,” he says.  But he will talk about his failed run for mayor of Cambridge against Joseph Kennedy, a campaign fueled by a unique (and unprintable) slogan that ended when Clarke headed to California.

“Basically, I’m glad I didn’t win,” Clarke says.  “If I did, god knows what would have happened.”

He’ll probably talk about the Boston Red Sox, and his surreal experience working on “Fever Pitch” in 2004, the year his home team finally won the World Series.   Clarke worked a lot in New York City before the Sox shook off the so-called “Curse of the Bambino”

“It was torture,” he says.  In “Fever Pitch,” Clarke played Uncle Carl, who early in the film warns a young Jimmy Fallon to “be careful – they’ll break your heart.”

“Maybe, maybe, maybe, aw sh*t – Bucky f’in Dent,” he says, recalling years of frustration as a Sox fan.  “You know where you were when Kennedy was shot; you know where you were when Bucky Dent hit that homer.”

Clarke was at a friend’s house with two unfortunate Jehovah’s Witnesses. “We told them if they sat and watched the game with us we’d give them 50 bucks,” Clarke remembers.  “When Bucky Dent hit the home run the guy who owned the place said, ‘get the —- out of my house! – and chased the poor bastards out.”

Lenny nearly missed his chance to see the Sox play in the 2004 World Series. He had a gig (booked by his brother Michael, who manages several comics and runs a club in Saugus called Giggles) for game one, and auctioned his game two dugout seats to help a firefighter friend who was battling brain cancer.  Fortunately, a close friend flew him to St. Louis for games three and four.   He calls seeing them win it all “one of the joys of my life.”

The comic devotes much of his time to charitable work, including the annual “Comics Come Home” event in Boston this November, which raises money for the Cam Neely Foundation.  He’s done several benefit shows for Boston-area children’s hospitals, and he helps out with Leary’s New York-based firefighter charity.

“It’s the thing that makes my mother the happiest,” says Clarke.  “She says, ‘it’s really nice to see your name in the papers and on TV, but it really makes me proud when you help other people’.”

Earth, Wind & Fire/Michael McDonald @ Meadowbrook

Thursday night’s show at the U.S. Cellular Meadowbrook Pavilion began on a somber note.  Following an a capella rendition of the national anthem by “New Hampshire Idol” winner Anthony Torres, Michael McDonald offered his own 9/11 tribute, a Christmas song called “Peace.”

“With all the ways the world has changed, it seems appropriate now,” he said.

Once that was behind him, a party vibe prevailed, as Earth, Wind & Fire kicked of a fall tour with the former Doobie Brothers front man.  The R&B band stuck to their mid-70’s sweet spot, with multilayered harmonies and funked-up jazz fueling hits like “Fantasy” and “September.”

The 12-member band wasted no time turning up the energy level, opening with three of their biggest hits in rapid succession – “Boogie Wonderland,“ Sing a Song” and “Shining Star.”  Throughout their 90-minute set the focus remained on the players – longtime vocalist Philip Bailey, founding bass player Verdine White (whose dreadlocked dervish antics haven’t lost a step), and the band’s newest member, Kim Johnson, who split lead vocals with Bailey.

Along with a three-man horn section and twin percussionists, the group was in perpetual motion most of the night, flashing Four Tops-like choreographic flourishes and other dance moves.

Eschewing flashy stage props and graphics for a tasteful light show, they reminded the audience that they were one of the most inventive bands of the era, stitching a free form jam onto “Sun Goddess” (one of the evening’s highlights).  On “Serpentine Fire,” White slapped out a rhythm that sounded more like a conga than a bass guitar.

Bailey’s vocal gymnastics helped push aside the fact, with lines like “I’m longing to love you just for a night/the reasons are that we’re here,” “Reasons” is as smarmy as it is pretty.  “September” sparked mass crowd hand waving, while “That’s the Way of the World” provided a perfect, mellow close to the evening.

Michael McDonald’s set drew from his Doobie Brothers catalog, including “Minute By Minute” and a syncopated, loping R&B version of “It Keeps You Running.”  A band of young Nashville players, along with long-time horn man Vince Denham, brought new energy to McDonald hits like “Sweet Freedom,” “I Keep Forgetting” and “Take it To Heart.”

But the focus was on the boomer hits that have given the 55-year old (“I’m a card carrying AARP member”) McDonald’s career a recent shot in the arm – “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Reach Out I’ll Be There.”

The evergreen music of Motown will always have an audience as long as blue-eyed soul men like McDonald have something to say about it.  But it was a rousing rendition of “Taking it to the Streets,” with Drea Rena sharing vocals, the got the biggest response of the night.  The young Rena brought a lot to the show – she’s definitely a singer to watch.

Oneside – First, To Last

A hoedown mood opens Oneside’s new album, signaling a shift away from the country jazz permeating their earlier work.  New banjo player Chris Hersch picks out a spare figure, backed only by Ned deBary’s delicate acoustic guitar, then handclaps.  The singer begins, and a kick drum roughs up “The Letter,” the first track on the Boston-based band’s new CD, “First, To Last.”

Then, as deBary wryly sings, “don’t tell me I’m going down the wrong path,” there’s a crackle of snare from drummer Jake Brooks, and the song is off and running.  Within the short space of four minutes, Oneside moves across time, beginning at Cold Mountain and ending at the Moondog Show.

Oneside covers a lot of musical ground in “First, To Last.”  “Oh Sun” is a spiritualized Americana rave-up, while a reworked “Got To Go” (the song appeared on an earlier EP) is a pure slice of country pie.  “Lisa” suggests that someone in this band listened to a lot of Gram Parsons at one time or another.  Since the entire band is given songwriting credit for each of the album’s 11 songs, it’s hard to know just who.

Anyone who says the long player is dead should listen to this, and think again.  Apart from one desultory instrumental (“Four Corners”), there’s not a wasted moment here.  Standout tracks include the jazzy “Out of My Tree” and “Josephine,” a roiling murder ballad that’s evocative of Gregg Allman’s “Midnight Rider.”

The band produced itself, and they show off their studio talents on  “Into the Night,” which starts small and ends big. “Our Song” is a guardedly optimistic ode to the musician’s life.  The interplay between the four band members – deBary, Hersch, Brooks and bassist Grafton Pease, is stunning.  No one element dominates, and what results is a gorgeous balance of flourish and restraint.  “Feel the song from both sides,” sings DeBary, and indeed they do.

The record’s tour de force is “Last Radio,” a darker look at the musical profession. The song metaphorically buries what’s left of the business, and waits to see what grows.

“Put your ear to the ground,” they sing, “listen a million miles down, hear a brand new sound, melodies escaping.”  As the Band and the Grateful Dead did, along with their modern disciples Wilco and Son Volt, Oneside is setting out to mine the deep.

Like those bands, they’ve burned their maps and manuals, preferring to work on instinct.

Or perhaps a better analogy can be found in the kitchen, where the trick is reconstructing familiar ingredients in new, inventive ways. Oneside has stepped away from being Bela Fleck acolytes to charting a different course.  With this effort, Oneside distills a long American musical history into its pure essence.

Oneside plays Friday at Salt hill Pub in Lebanon.  Show starts at 9 PM.