Local Rhythms – Thanks Again

thanksgiving-1“You feel all right when you hear that music ring” – Dire Straits

No one gets rich making music – not anymore.

Whether that’s a sad fact or a simple truth, it’s undeniable.  Strapping on a guitar, sitting down at the piano or stepping up to a microphone with dreams of wealth and fame is a near-certain recipe for disappointment.

For every arena rock star bathed in spotlight, five thousand aspirants toil in garages and bars.  In my opinion, it’s luck more than talent that separates the two camps.

And frankly, I’m more interested in those who play for love, not money.

So every week, it’s the strugglers and strivers I write about – musicians that play to stay young and write songs because doing anything else would betray their soul.

Their biggest ambition is to someday quit the day job, and do music full time.

Today at Thanksgiving, I am grateful for them.  All the names would fill a column and then some, so I won’t make a list.  But I want to say to every guy that leaves the plant at five and hits the BK drive-through on the way to band practice – thank you.

For every songwriter who works at Newbury Comics, Borders or another of a million gigs that pay for the real gig – thank you.

To the teacher who’s a part-time trumpet player, the hot tub rep living to be a weekend Pat Benetar, the keyboard tickler who, like the Harry character in Dire Straits’ “Sultans of Swing,” keeps “saving it up for Friday night.”

Please accept my heartfelt gratitude.

In years past, I’ve thanked many bar, club and restaurant owners who book live music, and the newfangled web sites that make it easier to find all the great bands out there.

Satellite radio stations, high definition television broadcasters and independent-minded record labels have all received a shout out from this page.

But without the players, none of the other things happen.

When anyone thanks me for writing this column, I try to immediately express how grateful I am to have a scene I can write about.

I haven’t seen every local band yet, but I’m working on it.  I haven’t listened to every studio demo, but that’s my reason for broadband.

Bruce Springsteen once wrote, “we learned more from a three minute record than we ever learned in school.”

Thankfully, class is still in session.

Here’s the rest of the week as I see it:

Friday: Bill Staines, Hartland Four Corners Universalist Church – My first encounter with this singer-songwriter (who now lives in Portsmouth, NH) was Nanci Griffith’s cover of “Roseville Fair” on her 1988 live album “One Fair Summer Evening.”  She called Staines “our generation’s Woody Guthrie,” and credited him with giving her the courage to perform.  He’s now in his sixth decade of performing.

Saturday: Pariah Beat w/ Rick Berlin & Rusty Belle, Main Street Museum – I’ve become a big fan of the Upper Valley alt-folk collective Pariah Beat, but my real interest in this show is Rick Berlin.  I saw him with Orchestra Luna, a progressive rock band that was at least 10 years ahead of its time (featuring a pre-Meatloaf Karla DeVito), back in the mid-70s.  Since then, he’s fronted Rick Berlin’s Airlift, and lately he’s been out playing solo.

Sunday: Matt McCabe, Firestones – Jazz and brunch go together like peanut butter and jelly, or perhaps more aptly eggs benedict and hollandaise sauce.  McCabe made his bones playing with Roomful of Blues, but lately goes solo with a soft touch and a bevy of standards like “The Way You Look Tonight” and “Starlight”.  Between Firestones and Bentley’s the twin towns of Quechee and Woodstock own the mid-day meal.

Monday: Dark Star Orchestra, Higher Ground – I’m not crazy about tribute bands, but I like this unique approach to Grateful Dead covers.  DSO chooses an entire performance from the Dead, the most bootlegged band in history, and re-creates it from beginning to end.  The audience is challenged to guess the when and where.  As 2008 draws to a close, I expect a few visits from ghosts of New Year’s Eve past.

Tuesday: Acoustic Coalition, Murphy Farm – This loose affiliation embodies the Upper Valley scene. Most of the players at this weekly jam session, returning to Quechee after spending the summer up north, gig with other bands – some with several. The Yellow House Media website, a great source for all things local and musical, contains a sampling of the inspired fun that transpires.

Wednesday: Molly Venter, Canoe Club – This week’s pick is a scrappy singer-songwriter whose stark, confessional style pulls you in and makes you feel her pain.  Heaven help the male subjects of songs like “Playing for Keeps” and “How This Ends.”  Multi-instrumentalist Cahalen David Morrison, who shines on mandolin and lap steel guitar, joins Molly and plays songs from his “Subcontinent” album.

Sophie & Zeke’s Plan December 6 Grand Opening

rosenquintetEverything’s bigger at Sophie & Zeke’s since their move to Opera House Square in downtown Claremont – even the music.  After a rehabilitation of the historic Brown Block building lasting years, the restaurant now has twice the kitchen space, room enough for double the customers, and an entertainment calendar that will soon extend to three nights.

For their first appearance at the new location, the Billy Rosen Quartet became a quintet.  Shayma, who joined the group in late fall, sang jazz standards, while Billy and sax player Nick Scalera traded licks.

“We want to mix it up and try something different,” Rosen said between sets.

Sophie & Zeke’s owners Reid & Danna Hannula have similar intentions – they recently announced plans for an official grand opening on Saturday, December 6.

The all-day party features food samples from Walpole Creamery and Claremont’s North Country Smokehouse, a live radio broadcast, and music – lots of music.

In addition to wine tasting and an art opening, there are plans for dancing into the late evening hours.

That’s a first for the restaurant.  Since opening in 2005 at 50 Pleasant Street in Claremont, they’ve stuck mostly to jazz, with an occasional bluegrass band and evergreens like Pete Merrigan and Al Alessi.

Clearing away tables and jamming well past dinner is brand new.

“It’s the kind of thing we want to do more of,” Reid Hannula says of the big event.  “We plan to pick a Saturday night each month, bring in high energy bands, and go a bit later.”

For the grand opening, Sophie & Zeke’s invites New York-based “The Thang” to get the dancing started.  The funky band rocks a sound somewhere between Black Eyed Peas and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Reid found the group through Abby Payne, an alt-rocker who’s booked to play her own set prior to the Thang’s.

“She got in touch with me about coming here.  I listened to her MySpace songs and was really impressed,” he says.  “She’s friends with the Thang and it’s just great that we can get them both.  I’m really looking forward to seeing her.”

Payne is a mainstay in her Brooklyn hometown, and in New York City clubs like the Red Lion.  She owes a debt to Fiona Apple on songs like “Bad One” and “Green,” both from her recently released “In a Pretty Box.”

On the record, she evokes Jacques Brel cabaret for “On Nature”, and spices up the poppy “Little Lotus” with Chicago horn charts straight out of “Wake Up Sunshine.”

She also does a terrific, revved-up version of Annie Lennox’s “Why.”

It will surely be a memorable double bill, but believe it or not, the twofer is only the latter half of an entire day’s worth of music and activities.

At 1 PM, a jazz/blues trio led by Tim Utt and Barbara Blaisdell will play an easy mix of covers and originals, a few of which have been heard on the big screen.  They call the scaled-down version of their hugely popular Sensible Shoes dance band “Sensible Soul.”

A live remote broadcast from Hanover radio station 99 Rock will bridge the gap between afternoon and evening, along with the aforementioned food and wine specialties.

With all this non-stop action, there’s barely time to change clothes between shifts.  Fortunately, Reid now occupies a freshly renovated apartment on the second floor of the Brown Block (in addition to the family home in Sutton, New Hampshire).

“It’s always been a dream of mine to live in my restaurant, to just have it always there,” he says.  As he describes the sweeping views of Broad Street Park and Opera House Square from his new corner unit, it’s clear the upstairs/downstairs arrangement is working well so far.

Sophie & Zeke’s will continue to present music every Thursday and Friday night at the new location; they’re also working on a first-ever New Year’s Eve bash, with menu specials, champagne and DJ dancing.  The restaurant hopes to have firm details of the event in time for the grand opening.

Tracy Chapman – Our Bright Future

chapmanbrightfutureTracy Chapman walks away from a fork in the road on the cover of her new album.  Whether she’s merging onto a main path, or simply fleeing a choice she’d rather not make is a good question.

It’s also a perfect metaphor for the many conflicts explored in this work. Though issues of faith, family and fidelity are never quite resolved, Chapman’s inner turmoil ends up paying terrific artistic dividends.

“Our Bright Future” is an impressive if downbeat work, marking 20 years since “Fast Car” won the attention of a nation of new folk fans.  Chapman appears wistful for past times on the record’s opening cut, recalling when she “knew all the words to the popular songs/with the radio on full volume … I used to sing for you.”

The singer/songwriter used two different sets of musicians for the project, a stable of seasoned session players like Steve Gadd and Dean Parks, along with some younger L.A. hotshots like Joey Waronker and Carla Kihlstedt. The elements blend quite well thanks to the steady hand of producer Larry Klein (Joni Mitchell, Vienna Teng).

The anti-war title cut seems at first a story of shattered idealism and betrayal. “Our bright future is in our past,” laments Chapman.  But she holds out hope in the song’s coda that, with new leaders,  “our bright future may come to pass” after all.

There’s a lot of wishing in vain, whether it’s trying and failing to move past a family tragedy
(“Alright For A Dream”) or, on “First Person On Earth,” romantic apocalypse:

“After the earthquakes the hurricanes
The fires and floods
I’m jaded cynical angry and glum
The worlds too absurd and obscene
For true love”

For every respite like the playful “I Did It All” there’s a darkening sky. On the bluesy romp “Thinking of You,” Chapman hits a cynical note, dismissing youth as a time of getting “an honest answer when a lie would do,” and finally concluding:

“I used to think
Galileo would agree
That the world was round
And you’d come round to me
But I have looked for you
And you’re nowhere in sight
The world must be flat
The Babylonians were right”

Chapman lays her battered, torn beliefs out starkly on the neo-gospel “Save Us All.” “I know Jesus loves me,” she proclaims with fervor. “My God is a mighty big God,” she continues, but then descends into doubt, ending on this dour note:  “If pride goeth before the fall/I hope someone’s God will save us all.”

Overall, “Our Bright Future” is a great listen – just don’t listen too closely.

Local Rhythms – Whither Record Stores?

recordstoreWhere’s the government bailout for the music industry?  If taxpayers should rescue Ford and GM before they run out of gas, what about Warner Brothers?

Heck, what about Music Matters, the latest local record store to close shop?  For years, the West Lebanon business stood out from the big box operations, hosting live shows from local bands and stocking deep catalog items.

Last week, owner Rob Nahabedian gave up the ghost.

According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, more than 3,000 record stores have closed since 2002, while more than 5,500 record company employees were laid off between 2000 and the middle of last year.

These days, most CDs are bought on impulse while traversing between the light bulbs and the laundry soap.   Worse than that, these transactions are carried out with a complete disregard for the old way of commerce.

Many artists are making an end run around record companies and dealing directly with the big boxes.   Journey, the Eagles and AC/DC all made exclusive deals with Wal-Mart, while the Beatles, Usher, Elton John and the Police each have Best Buy-only releases.

So what?

Once upon a time I used to seek out ears of authority like Jack Black’s clerk character in the movie “High Fidelity.”  I devoured magazine stories about Atlantic Records founder Ahmet Ertegun.  Do they matter today?

When Warner Music Group CEO Edgar Bronfman Jr. recently spoke of his label as an “editorial voice” that molds raw talent into something more refined, I was incredulous.

These days, the big labels buy finished product from successful indie bands, and distribute it.  They are to original music what the Drudge Report is to news.

On the other hand, it’s a fallacy to assume that if all music is free, small bands will thrive without an “editorial voice.”

Earlier this year, the German label Dependent Records went out of business rather than continue trying to fight piracy.

Complained Dependent’s CEO, “People fail to see that music labels are like amplifiers in a stereo system. Without them you cannot hear the music of the bands you would like to hear.”

Fans can steal music as long as labels produce it, he said, but then what?

“Where do you get your music,” he said, “when those labels are going down the drain – MySpace?”

False economies are wrong.  No amount of taxpayer money will make Detroit build better cars, for example. But for music, there must be some middle ground.

Some upcoming shows:

Thursday: Gregory Douglass, Higher Ground – Many of this young singer-songwriter’s tunes fall into the “long dark night of the soul” category.  His upcoming CD “Battler” deals with father/son relationships, life’s day-to-day struggles, love and other murky topics.  Over the course of 8 albums, Douglass has relied on his fan base to finance his work, with innovative offers reminiscent of the Obama campaign fundraising machine.

Friday: Rhonda Vincent & Jerry Douglas, Lebanon Opera House – The first night of this weekend’s bluegrass festival is the best, with Vincent, who sings as well as she fiddles, topping the bill.  But the real draw is Douglas, who owns his instrument in a way that rivals few other players.  For my money, he’s not just the best dobro player in the world, he’s the only one.  Douglas’s work with Alison Krauss is legendary.  His solo stuff is sublime.

Saturday: Belly Dancing Recital, Woodstock Town Hall Theatre – Here’s a fun change of pace – South Royalton dancer Gina Caposella has taught in the area for 18 years; this is the 5th annual public performance by her students, which includes special guest appearances.  The night features classic Egyptian, Hagallah, Khaleegy, Melaya Leff, swords, live drumming, circus performance and more.  It frequently sells out, so call ahead for tickets.

Sunday: Nick Alexander Benefit, Salt hill Pub – If it’s Sunday and there’s music at Salt hill, that usually means another fundraiser.   This time it’s for an area ski jumper with Olympic dreams.  The benefit performance features Wise Rockobili and his bassist from Kaila, the fascinating world music band he’s fronted for some time.  Money raised from the show will help Nick compete in few European events this winter.

Tuesday: Billy Rosen & David Westphalen, Tip Top Café – Though Elixir is closed, weekly jazz in White River Junction continues at this interesting eatery.  Rosen is a terrific improvisational guitarist, while Westphalen can often be seen fronting Swing Machine.  Together, they lay down a wonderful groove. I’m a big fan of the WRJ renaissance, and Tip Top is one big reason why.

Wednesday: Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Verizon Wireless Arena – If you’ve never seen this 25-member extravaganza, you owe it to yourself (and your kids if you have them) to check it out.  I’m not a big fan of arena shows, but there’s no place more appropriate for TSO’s combo of lasers, smoke, bombs and majestic orchestral rock. A word of warning – at this point, TicketMaster is only scalping tickets (at more than double face value) for the evening show- ain’t monopoly grand?  There’s a matinee at 4:00 PM, as well as  several other upcoming New England shows, however.

Digging the Folk in WRJ

image_079How refreshing to enjoy folk music in a non-high stakes environment.  Stopping by the Tuckerbox Café on Friday night, I grabbed a tall latte, took a seat close to where Phil Singer and Laurianna Jordan were harmonizing, and relaxed.

The pair worked through a few of Phil’s songs, which recall the music of classic folkies like Pete Seeger and Phil Ochs.  All the while, a steady stream of friends, family and curiosity-seekers milled in, quickly filing the street-facing performance space, then the large seating area adjacent to the food/coffee counter.

Marianna McKim joined Phil and Laurianne for a well-chosen mix of covers.  Their tasty version of Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You” took its cues from the duet Emmylou Harris did with Don Williams on her “Cimarron” album.  They also did a nice job with Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” and John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery.”

Then Marianna played solo – too bad I wasn’t able to hear all of her set, but what I did catch was quite enjoyable, including one original about love gone wrong.   A moment of perfect synchronicity occurred at the end of McKim’s rendition of   Jean Ritchie’s “The L & N Don’t Stop Here Any More,” when a train whistle moaned as if on cue.

It’s just the sort of scene I was counting on when I wrote about Tuckerbox earlier this week.  It’s not Club 47, but it’s a pleasure to be able to actually listen without the music getting drowned in conversation.  The only noise came from behind the counter (the espresso machine sounds like a prop from ”Brazil”).  People mostly paid attention, and those that were talking did so in hushed tones.  To my delight, it was mostly about the music.

The Tuckerbox Folk Series happens every Friday from 6-8 PM at Tuckerbox Café, located in White River Junction at the corner of North Main and South Main.

Local Rhythms – Folk Scene Gets A Nice Boost

singout19711Well-rounded though the area music scene may be, there’s a dearth of places hosting singer-songwriters.

A lot of local venues seem to exist between two extremes.

On the one hand, there’s quiet jazz, a perfect background soundtrack for dinner conversation; on the other, blues and rock, typically delivered after 9:00 PM to energetic crowds – designed to stoke thirsts and fill dance floors.

Not that I’m complaining, but having spent my Wonder Bread years listening to Jackson Browne, Carole King and James Taylor, there’s nothing more exhilarating to me than witnessing an artist who can quiet a room with nothing more than their voice, a guitar and the thoughts in their head.

“Pour your simple sorrow to the sound hole and your knee,” wrote Joni Mitchell.  Through some kind of alchemy, these private thoughts become universal emotions.

It’s magic.

With that in mind, I welcome the arrival of a weekly acoustic music series at Tuckerbox Café in White River Junction.

Singer-songwriters perform every Friday night from 6 to 8 PM; there’s a rotation of five performers.  It’s the brainchild of Norwich folksinger Phil Singer.

The location, which opened last June, “has a real lively folk vibe,” enthuses Singer.  ”The overstuffed leather couches and chairs remind me of the Ohio coffeehouses I used to play back in the day.”

Featured performers include Marianna McKim, who performs this week with a player to be named later, musical curator Ford Daley and his partner Elaine Gifford, area mainstay Betsy Stewart, folksinger Cindy Geilich, and Singer & Jordan, Phil’s duo with Laurianne Jordan.

The latte and scones operation is an offshoot of Tip Top Café, and is located just down the street from the American bistro-styled restaurant at 1 South Main Street – right in the heart of the vibrant WRJ arts scene.

It’s a classic “door closes, window opens” scenario, considering Elixir’s closing last month.

Singer attempted to organize a similar effort for a few months last year, trucking in coffee and snacks to the Hotel Coolidge, but the chemistry wasn’t right.

Undeterred, he and his friends kept making music while they waited for another opportunity.

“Up to now, we’ve been meeting in one another’s houses because of the scarcity of venues for acoustic music,” he says.

But the times, they are a-changing … for the better.

What else is happening?

Thursday: John Gorka, Four Corners Grille – 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 local 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.

Friday: High Ground Band, Electra – These country rockers have a big following at area clubs like Shenanigans and KJ’s (where they perform next Friday). They’re also a charitable bunch – for the second year in a row, High Ground will perform their original song,  “David’s House,” during their opening set at that organization’s annual benefit (Lebanon Opera House, December 3) – Mark Wills is headlining.

Saturday: Pete Merrigan, Seven Barrel Brewery – I know, I frequently pick this man’s shows. What can I say? I’m a fan.  But this is the first time in my memory that he’s performed at this wonderful West Lebanon brew pub, which I still love even though I can’t have a cigar there any more.  Pete’s a permanent resident now, though he’s sneaking down to Tampa/St. Petersburg in early December for a couple of shows.

Sunday: Jeremy Milligan Quintet, Hooker-Dunham – This group plays moody, hard to pin down jazz influenced by Bela Fleck, Tin Hat Trio and other iconoclasts.  Which is perfect for this smallish Brattleboro performance space, which routinely welcomes left of center talent.  His songs (streaming on Milligan’s MySpace page) insinuate themselves, lurking in the background until some clever interplay between clarinet, accordion and guitar pokes above the surface.

Tuesday: The Blasters, Iron Horse – In the 1980’s this rocking combo was equally at home sharing the bill with Black Flag or Queen.  They specialize in uncompromising, high-energy roadhouse music.  Bands like the Fabulous Thunderbirds and Los Lobos found success with this sound, while the Blasters stayed a bit under the radar – though not for lack of talent

Wednesday: Duane Carleton, Center Street Saloon – This singer/songwriter plays upwards of 300 gigs a year in and around northern Vermont, including weekly appearances at this Rutland pub.  He reminds me of John Mellencamp, with energetic songs about working class concerns.  I’d love to see him play a bit closer to the Upper Valley, but for now, this is as close as he gets.

Finally, for retirees & swing-shifters – The Claremont Middle School hosts a free performance by multi-instrumentalist and world music authority Randy Armstrong

Greg Copeland Returns

revengewillcomeThe Desert Island Disc – every music fan, especially those who are critics, has one.  Usually revered for both sonic beauty and a sense of neglected genius (See: Lester Bangs on the Shaggs’ “History of the World”).

For me, that record is Greg Copeland’s “Revenge Will Come,” which arrived in 1982 like a Molotov cocktail lobbed at the coked-out complacency of Southern California soft rock and nascent Reaganism.

Jackson Browne, Copeland’s friend and sometime collaborator since high school, produced it.

But even though they shared a history (and A-List studio musicians like Danny Kortchmar and Bob Glaub), this was no “Pretender” – not by a country mile.

If anything, Browne became the borrower: “Lives in the Balance” couldn’t exist if Copeland hadn’t written “El Salvador,” an anti-war song that rivals Bob Dylan’s best:

Think of the four sisters shot in the back
For holding a land-reform school
Think of the ones taking heart in the hills
They can be beaten but they can never be ruled
Los Companeros – born in the war
Viva El Salvador

“El Salvador” was among many perfect moments of unalloyed rage on “Revenge Will Come.” Copeland railed at whoremongers (on the title song), spit on shiny limousines (“Used”) and sneered, in “Full Cleveland”:

There’s blood all over the bottom line
Money, child, that’s where it’s at
You go tell Karen Silkwood that

Which so offended Cleveland’s biggest rock music station, they refused to play the album.  It’s a crime that Black Flag never covered the song.

But the real power of “Revenge Will Come” came during its uncommonly tender moments.  Prisoners, trailer park denizens and the criminal-minded all shared a piece of Greg Copeland’s warm heart.

Take “Starting Place,” where a rounder counts off his sins and asks for redemption:

Once I was a fool at heart
I was a man at everything
I killed an angel for her precious wings
And every time I could get some love
I put it right back in my arm
I guess it’s true, baby,
There’s no refuge in the storm
That’s for another time
And another space
Oh baby will you be my starting place

Or the misguided rube of “Wrong Highway,”

Born on TV, raised at the Alamo
You don’t want to go to jail,
But every payday comes so slow

On “Richard Hill,” Copeland weds a “Kumbaya” progression to a murder ballad as he tells the story of a son’s retribution:

My father was a kind man
From the western states
He could buy and sell
And he made his way
Gunned down
‘Cause he would carry cash
I left my mother and my sister
And I went after that killer’s ass

Though it entered my bloodstream like adrenaline, the rest of the world mostly ignored “Revenge Will Come.” The record never appeared on CD, and Copeland didn’t perform it live – ever.  On the album’s cover, the songwriter stands half in the shadows, emanating wariness of the spotlight.

Among the few interviews he did, one might have made him a star. Paul Nelson, who’d written about Dylan when he first hit Greenwich Village, signed the New York Dolls, and ran the record review desk at Rolling Stone when such a thing actually mattered, talked to Copeland in late 1982.

But he resigned from the magazine before writing a story.  Nelson’s biographer found a cassette of their conversation shortly after the critic died in 2006.

Copeland ‘s fate reminded me of a line from “El Salvador” – “praise for the ones who are buried and gone/and the strong hearts who just disappear.”

He’d made a record with one of music’s biggest stars, released it on the powerful Geffen label (which included Elton John and Donna Summer), and then vanished.

I asked about Copeland during a conversation with Jackson Browne in 1986, and even he didn’t seem to know where to find him.

Over the years, I’d check record store bins for signs of his work; when the Internet emerged, I Googled “Greg Copeland” more times than I can remember.  I wore out two copies of “Revenge Will Come,” and every time a new technology came along – MiniDisc, CD-R, MP3 – his was the first music I’d convert.

Then a few months ago, word arrived of a new Greg Copeland record, the first in over 26 years.  The album, entitled “Diana and James,” was released on Jackson Browne’s own Inside Records label in mid-October.

It’s easy to mistake “Diana and James,” for the work of a different artist.  The smooth fury of 1982 is scuffed and weary in 2008.  Copeland’s voice, once a close cousin to Walter Egan or perhaps Lindsey Buckingham, is now a ragged-but-right combination of John Hiatt and Bob Dylan.

But sentiments at the heart of both records – love is neither given nor guaranteed, sorrow can be overcome but never banished, and doubt can cling like morning fog to every single day – stitch the years together.

In a perfect echo of “Starting Place” Copeland sings, on the new record:

If we want love
We better make our own
Instead of putting up walls
Stone by perfect stone

That’s the lesson of distance.  What once could be conjured, or willed through passion, now takes patience and work.  “You don’t just kiss and make up/we’ve got this to go through,” he wryly observes in “A Woman and A Man.”

But bruised optimism is still a kind of hope, he explains on the wondrously brief “Typical.”  With the precision of Raymond Carver’s “A Small, Good Thing,” Copeland whittles the enormity of simple survival down to eight perfect lines:

Typical three-day day
And a three-chord song
If it wasn’t for this
I’d be screaming in tongues
And the love light shines
Sparkling on razor wire
Typical bud-wiser words
Typical steel guitar

“Diana and James” are recurring characters in a story that begins with murder and works backwards. On the lead track, “Muddy Water,” a woman’s body is pulled from a river, the reasons for her death unclear:

It took time to find out
What she could bear
It took sticks and sandbars
To braid her hair
Hey what did it take, boys
To carry her there
More than the muddy water
More than the muddy water

Though culpability for the killing is revealed on “I Am The One,” the guilty party is not.  Doing the deed matters less than failing to stop it, and carrying on with the weight of regret is worse than death.  Laments Copeland on the title song:

There’s nobody else I want to be
Nobody else I can turn into
Honey baby, where have you been
What I have to do
Isn’t what I’ve learned to live with
Another reason not to give in

With a literary voice somewhere between David Lynch and Cormac McCarthy (with a coy, Henry James-ish “dear reader” tossed in) Copeland reveals a character “Between Two Worlds.” In the first, he’s wandering wounded through escape and self-destruction – “just me, in my own little Amsterdam.” He yearns for a holier place – “us in our own little Palestine” – and implores “King Confusion, send me a sign/send a little postcard so I can tell where I am.”

Copeland and producer/guitar wizard Greg Leisz lured some amazing players into the studio for this project, which took over five years to complete.   Standout performances include violinist Carla Kihlstedt (Tin Hat Trio), who shares an eerie lead vocal on “Palace of Love,” Heather Waters’ tasteful harmonies on “A Woman and a Man” and the title track, and Gabe Witcher’s (Punch Brothers, Loggins & Messina) mournful fiddle playing.

Keyboard player Phil Parlapiano evinces an incredible soft touch, just enough on “Who You Gonna Love” and “The Only Wicked Thing,” the latter a playful speculation on the night Hank Williams died.

Leisz, who plays on every song, is wonderfully ubiquitous on lap steel, acoustic, electric and baritone guitar.  His restraint and elemental musical sense behind the boards elevate “Diana and James” into brilliance.

It’s another touchstone record, but for different reasons.  Copeland’s youthful militancy has given way to a murkier acceptance of “the trouble in the truth.” Now he graveyard whistles (on “All Those Things,” the album’s final song) and muses: “I guess I’ve seen enough of this long, gaudy fall out of love.”

Yet he doesn’t gives up the ghost.  “I don’t know how, but I can see you now,” sings Copeland, “by a light I can barely find.”

Dreams of burning the world down once fueled his fury, but those emotions belong to another life, another time – another man.  Older, wearier and somehow serene, he now follows the promise of a dim, durable flame.

Greg Copeland – In His Own Words

dianajamesIf the measure of a great record is how it reveals itself over time, then Greg Copeland’s “Diana and James” is a masterpiece.  It’s a blend of “Cold Mountain” musical textures and Cormac McCarthy literary elements like murder, regret and brooding historical reverie.

But its arrival, 26 years past Copeland’s incendiary debut album, still doesn’t unravel the mystery of the years connecting both works.

Where did he go, and who returned?  These and other questions were recently put to Greg Copeland.

What have you done with the fury that shaped so much of “Revenge Will Come”?

The fury you’re talking about is part of my emotional DNA and can’t be extracted; it’s a kind of fuel in my engine, but now I’m driving the same car to a different place.

For me, “Revenge Will Come” is largely an outward-looking record … mostly informed by my own version of the punk ethos.   The Clash was literally “the only band that mattered” for me when I wrote it, and music was one big wasteland between “London Calling” and Joe Henry’s “Scar”.  I can’t think of a single record that really knocked me out between those two.

But [much of the genre is] about blame — i.e., how stupid and shallow OTHER people are (corporate figures, girlfriends, mindless workers, etc.) and how THEY have messed ME up.  The big “f*ck all” that’s crouched in the heart of the best punk music can (and, for me, did) deteriorate into a refusal to recognize that I was to blame as much as anyone else for my own condition.

The two records sound like they might have come from different artists.

I know and people have been telling me that and I kind of like that actually.  There’s something about that that appeals to me, because I don’t feel like the person that made “Revenge Will Come.”  I mean, in a sense I do, but as a songwriter I don’t.  As a songwriter I feel very different.  So it would make sense that they would seem different.

“Diana and James” is an inward-looking record, because that’s where love is — and love (with all its sharp-toothed details) is the central theme of the record.

How did your return to songwriting happen?

I didn’t make a conscious decision to begin writing songs again; the songs themselves simply insisted that they be written … I was the only “volunteer” in the room at the time.  Every one of those songs is a direct reflection of something specific that was happening in my own … life.

I would wager that all of the songs on “Diana and James” have two or more contradictory emotions at work at the same time, like the counter-springs in a clock, because that’s what I was going through.  “King Confusion” indeed.

Where did you go after “Revenge Will Come”?

I decided, I gotta make a living.  A friend of mine who worked at a really big law firm … had this huge case, and they were hiring paralegals.  Not off the street, but they might as well have been.  If you could read English they could use you.  I just showed up thinking I could get about six weeks worth of work.  I decided that I wanted to be a paralegal, and I was for a couple of years, then I decided I wanted to be a lawyer, and I fell in with a law firm that I just love, it was real ethical and everything you’d want, and I just kind of did what they did.

Then you re-discovered your muse?

That lasted for 15 years and I just got sick of it.  I got to this point where I just had to write.  I had done it before and I had that gene that knew what to do, but I didn’t have anything.  Then a friend asked me, are you still writing songs.  He knew what I’d done before and was curious why I wasn’t doing it any more.  Then he asked me why, and I hadn’t really considered it.  So I had to figure out why, and just get past it.  Having gone through that process, it took me a couple of years to feel it was real, rather than just a whim.

So now you’re a lawyer who writes?

It was something where there was a particular moment, a three-month period where I changed from being a lawyer who wrote songs to being a songwriter with a day job.  And that’s where I am now.  I love my job, there’s a lot of flexibility, I don’t have to do any bullshit, I do a good job, work about half of what real lawyer works, dollar in dollar out, and the rest of the time write.

Do you have any plans to perform live?

I’m a writer.  You can phrase it anyway you want.  I love writing, I love recording, but when the record’s done, my job is done.  I don’t hold myself out as an entertainer; I’m a songwriter.  I’m not the guy up on stage.  It’s not my thing – at least not now.

Mavis Staples – Hope At The Hideout

mavisliveAlong with her fellow family members in the Staples Singers, Mavis Staples provided a soundtrack for the American civil rights movement, something she refers to simply as “The Struggle”.  So it’s fitting that Staples would release the stunning live collection “Hope At The Hideout” on November 4, the day the United States elected its first African-American President.

Working in front of an intimate crowd in her hometown of Chicago, the 69-year old singer brings ferocious energy to protest songs and spiritual standards.

Much of the material is drawn from the 2007’s Ry Cooder-produced “We’ll Never Turn Back,” but it’s more raw and immediate in this setting, with the audience behaving less like patrons in a club than parishioners in pews.

She leads off with a growling rendition of Stephen Stills’ “For What It’s Worth” and never lets up from there.

Highlights include J.B. Lenoir’s swampy “Down In Mississippi,” given a powerful autobiographical touch with Staples’ story of colored-only water fountains.  On “Wade In The Water” guitarist Rick Holmstrom channels John Fogerty while Mavis leads the group, which includes her sister Yvonne, in a rousing call-and-response.

There’s a sense of living history throughout, but never more so than three songs at the record’s center, offered in sequence.  She brings the same fierce determination to “Why Am I Treated So Bad” that Pops Staples did when he wrote it in response to a Martin Luther King sermon.  “Freedom Highway” brims with hope and optimism; on “We Shall Not Be Moved,” Staples recounts a confrontation at a southern lunch counter a mere 45 years ago.

After performing a rousing encore of “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” Staples isn’t ready to leave the stage, so she launches into an equally spirited “On My Way”.  The audience’s energy level acts like an extra instrument, as shouts and whoops of joy punctuate her (as one writer so vividly put it) “honey and grits” voice .  Unwilling to let the night end, she finishes with “I’ll Take You There,” one of her biggest Staples Singers hits.

“I’ve had such a good time, “ she finally thanks the crowd.  “I’m home – so I guess I’ll come back tomorrow night.”  You’ll probably do the same, and let this inspiring live album go immediately for a second spin.

Local Rhythms – Led Zeppelin “Idol”

The latest news for the Zeppelin-obsessed came last week, when Aerosmith’s Brad Whitford revealed that Steven Tyler recently jammed with Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones and Jason Bonham in a London studio.

Don’t read too much into it, though.

Tyler idolized bands like the Yardbirds, Cream and Zeppelin back in his Sunapee Barn days, so I’m sure he had a fantastic time. But Whitford says Page’s high-powered invite was really designed to goad Robert Plant into touring.

“He was trying to light a fire under Robert,” Whitford told a British TV host. “Come on! Come on, Robert, let’s go!”

God bless him, Plant didn’t bite. A statement on the singer’s web site called the rumors “both frustrating and ridiculous.”

For that, he’s still my hero.

Jones, however, who seethed when Page/Plant made “Unledded” in the mid-90’s without him, is fixated on a classic rock payday. “But we don’t want to be our own tribute band,” the bassist told the BBC.

To which I reply, why not?  Boston plucked their new lead singer from a karaoke bar; Journey found Steve Perry’s doppelganger on YouTube.

More recently, Yes replaced the ailing Jon Anderson with Benoit David, who until the call came had been fronting – you guessed it – a Yes tribute band.

This could make for great reality television. I know, INXS did it on “Rock Star,” but their lead singer was dead.

Robert Plant is very much alive, and apparently doesn’t have any plans for the next couple of years beyond a possible follow-up to “Raising Sand,” the album he made with Allison Krauss.

Though he may not be interested in playing with Led Zeppelin, perhaps Plant could be coaxed into helping pick his replacement.

Picture it – with dreams of stadium shows filling their heads, cover bands count off “Whole Lotta Love” with renewed vigor.

Aging rockers clear out garage practice space, and once again squeeze into ripped old bell bottomed jeans – all for a chance at the top.

High drama ensues when Plant, weary of these Golden God wannabes, says, “sod it all, I’ll do it myself,” and then demurs.

As each hopeful takes a shot, real time ticket price estimates crawl across the screen like a Dow Jones report.  That, after all, is the reason for the exercise.  How much will fans pay to see this farce?

I’ve got a better idea – save your money, and check out some local talent:

Thursday: Jason Cann, Casa del Sol – When this newly opened Ascutney restaurant was known as Moguls in the 1980s, it hosted bands like Foghat and Marshall Tucker. The live music tradition continues weekly with Cann, one of my favorite local singer-songwriters, and in January, Wise Rokobili will perform Saturdays.   There are plans to present even bigger names in the future – good news indeed.

Friday: Red Molly, Boccelli’s – This trio, who met around a Falcon Ridge campfire a few years back, has built an avid area following since playing the Roots on the River festival in 2007.  Their gorgeous harmonies can take your breath away. I could watch them for hours.  Upper Valley fans got a taste of them last summer. If you like smooth, elegant folk music, you’ll love Red Molly.

Saturday: Bob Marley, Claremont Opera House – One of the funniest people alive, and the hardest working comedian I know is back for another area show.  Unlike many comics, Bob brings a new set of material every time he comes to town.  He can form a bit in his head in the morning and have it audience-ready by the time he walks on stage, riffing on current events, his parents (who must love the exposure), and life in New England -the essence of Ha!

Sunday: Nine Inch Nails, Worcester Centrum – I don’t typically plug many arena shows, but it’s worth noting that as the music business implodes, NIN (who play in Manchester Saturday) is thriving.  Why?  Leader Trent Reznor does right by the fans.   He gives away entire albums on the band’s web site, has no label and kowtows to no bosses.  He keeps things interesting and never forgets the reason for his success – and NIN sells out everywhere they appear.

Tuesday: Dartmouth Wind Symphony, Spaulding Auditorium – Highbrow music from an ensemble celebrating its 25th year with founder/director Max Culpepper.  This show features selections from Aida, Carmen, Madame Butterfly, the Marriage of Figaro and other masterpieces, arranged for flute, clarinet, trumpet and other wind instruments.

Wednesday: Off the Beaten Path, Woodstock Town Hall Theatre – Subtitled “A Jazz Tap Odyssey,” this program joins a jazz quartet consisting of piano, bass, drums and woodwinds with a company of six tap dancers.  They perform a program inspired by proto-environmentalist author Rachel Carson.  There’s a special “Arts In Education” program for school kids at 12:30, and a public performance at 7:30.