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.