Mix 2008

cimg1572Every year at this time, I make a mix disc for family and friends of the best music released over the past 12 months.  This year I’m sharing it with Local Rhythms readers.

Usually it’s a top ten, but there was so much good stuff in 2008, it’s been expanded to 15.

More proof that while the business is hurting, music is fine.

Here’s another thing worth pondering.  Despite all the talk about the death of the long-playing record, the majority of these songs were picked from well-rounded albums.

So, without further ado, my 2008 mix:

Delivered, Mark Erelli – The title song from my favorite album of 2008.  Mark Erelli changed up everything from his studio band to the record-making process itself, enlisting his fans for a “barn raising” to fund the project.  Then he made amazing music about impermeable things – family, commitment and faith in the future. “Love will remain,” sings Mark, “this you cannot change.”

River Grace, Jenee Halstead – This eastern Washington transplant was my discovery of the year. Jenee (pronounced like “Renee”) has a honey-throated voice and the storytelling ability of a soul well beyond her years.  Don’t miss her upcoming appearance at Boccelli’s. This, the title cut from her debut album, is a gem among many.

The Only Wicked Thing, Greg Copeland – Catching up with the performer, who made one record in 1982 and disappeared, was one of the joys of my year.  This song imagines Hank Williams’ last night on earth.  The album it comes from, “Diana and James,” is earthy and brilliant.

Babylon Is Falling, Pariah Beat – I’ve been scratching my head since first hearing this Upper Valley collective, trying to find a way to describe their music.  How about – Klezmericana?

Where Were You, Jackson Browne – This song is an historical document of the failure to respond in the wake of devastation, rendered with Browne’s trademark quiet rage.

Fan The Fury, Aloud – This Boston band rages, but there’s nothing quiet about them. This pointed song put to rest any questions about 2008 being an election year.

Since The Day, Stonewall – I’ve been listening to rough mixes of these songs for a long time, so it was gratifying to greet the release of my favorite power trio’s debut album, “What If?”

That’s The Way It Goes, Open Case/Breadtruck Productions – A great song full of infectious hooks that I can’t get out of my head.  This hip-hop outfit and I had a lively discussion about the genre, and I wound up being impressed by their “Rap the Vote” live show.

Strawberry Street, Lili Haydn – It was hard to pick a top song from this wonderful fusion of pop, rock and jazz.  The title cut, “Place Between Places,” is hypnotic while her re-make of Funkadelic’s “Maggot Brain” shows why Lili’s called the Jimi Hendrix of the electric violin.

One Bite Won’t Kill You, Dr. Burma – Without a doubt, my favorite guilty pleasure is 70’s horn bands.  It doesn’t matter how obscure, I love ‘em all (does anybody remember Lighthouse?).  Dr. Burma brings it all back with their first studio album, and the title cut is the best of the lot.

Last Radio, Oneside – Banjo fury fuels this danceable ode to a dying art form.  This is one of many great tracks from this Boston-based band’s most recent collection.

Hallelujah, Drew Holcomb & The Neighbors – One of the few “singles” on my list, only because I haven’t yet had a chance to hear the album it came from.  This celebration of the music life arrived as part of a Paste magazine sampler.

The Longer I Run, Peter Bradley Adams – A lovely balance of longing and regret, I’ve been humming this song like a prayer of late.

America (Enough), Meg Hutchinson – Too much of something tends to become its opposite – “if there’s crowd enough, it turns back to solitude.”  Hutchinson is Thoreau with a guitar, possessing a knack for finding meaning many strange and beautiful places.

Yes We Can, will.i.am et.al. – A speech set to music that in many ways reflected the mood of the country during this turbulent year – recorded in New Hampshire, no less.

Local Rhythms – Greening the New Year

new_years_toastIt’s time again for New Year’s resolutions.  I’ve decided to make 2009 my year of being green.

I’m newly militant about separating trash and not buying anything that comes in a wax-coated carton.

No more bottled water, when a reusable carafe and a Brita filter does the trick and doesn’t add to landfills.

And when it comes to music, the smaller the carbon footprint, the bigger the chance I’ll hear it.

To put a finer point on it, the compact disc must die.

Two examples, one right, the other very wrong, illustrate my point.

Earlier this month a Boston band called the Macrotones emailed to offer me their latest album, “Wayne Manor.”

The all-instrumental record is full of lively jazz excursions infused with a Latin backbeat.  The unique sound recalls a funky version of Sun Ra’s Arkestra (there are 10 musicians credited, and they all seem to be working on every track), as well as Frank Zappa in his “Grand Wazoo” days.

The Macrotones also remind me of newer groups like Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, and the album’s best track, “Book It,” pulls all the elements together, featuring sizzling trombone work from Nate Leskovic, with hypnotic percussion and twin saxophones making a tasty musical stew.

Notice how I haven’t referred to “Wayne Manor” as a CD?

The band’s email pointed me to a web site where the album and all the artwork could be found.  You’d think this would be an everyday occurrence, but strangely it was the first time a band offered to provide a review copy in this way.

Compare this to the new Lindsey Buckingham record, which I loved by the way.  “Gift Of Screws” first arrived via express mail, an advance copy registered in my name, replete with threatening language about the consequences if I shared it.

Which was beside the point, as the disc was so gummed up with DRM that only one player (thankfully, in my car) didn’t spit it out when I tried to play it.

Later a brown truck delivered yet another disk, containing artwork and credits.

That’s a lot of gas, cardboard and plastic for something I could have had in seconds via a much more environmentally friendly means of transport.

It’s wasteful and stupid, so in 2009, I’m giving priority to the Macrotones of the world.

Don’t tax the planet – It sure as heck doesn’t improve the music.

By the way, local music requires less gas:

Thursday: Guy Davis, Plainfield Grange – He’s said that growing up the only cotton he picked was his underwear off the floor, and recently Guy Davis told a journalist that the first time he heard the blues was in college, played by lily-white Vermont boys.  Still, Davis embodies the blues, channeling masters like Howlin’ Wolf and Blind Willie McTell, though he possesses his own unique style.  This intimate local performance should be a treat.

Friday: Pete Merrigan, Salt hill – A Pete show in January kind of boggles the mind, but think of it this way: it will be summer all over again, The good-natured purveyor of “life, love and laughter – one song at a time” got his start playing in the Shanty, a pub run by Josh Tuohy’s mom and dad in Sunapee.  Now Josh has his own tavern, so this show is a homecoming of sorts.

Saturday: Erica Wheeler, Boccelli’s – The first of several upcoming shows features a fine singer-songwriter whose music evokes a sense of place.  One critic likened her last record, “Good Summer Rain,” to “flipping through a photo album of an Ansel Adams road trip.” Next month, Boccelli’s welcomes Mark Erelli, who made my favorite album of 2008 (Feb 6) and a great Chris O’Brien/Jenee Halstead double bill on February 28.  BOCS is a happening place.

Sunday: Wu-Tang Clan, Higher Ground – WTC is less a band than a conglomerate with a musical division. These so-called hardcore rappers also dabble in film, television and fashion.  In addition, they’ve launched a lot of other hip-hop careers, which why explain why it took them six years to make their 2007 album “8 Diagrams.”  The original collective, with the exception of Ol’ Dirty Bastard, who died in 2004, is still performing, though Method Man won’t be at this show.

Tuesday: Billy Rosen & Emily Lanier, Tip Top Café – There’s still jazz in White River Junction, Tonight, two of my favorites perform. Guitarist Rosen has an ever so soft touch.  After a long run with New Kind of Blue, vocalist Lanier can be heard in several different configurations, most prominently with the Emily Lanier Jazz Ensemble. With dishes like pork & ginger meatloaf with red wine demiglace, the Tip-Top’s menu is as inventive as the music.

Local Rhythms – Best Live Shows of 2008

Vienna Teng

Music thrived in 2008.  For every show on my best of list, there was at least one I wished I’d seen.  It was also a year of discovery.  Almost half of the top ten includes performers I witnessed for the first time.

These evenings of live music proved to me that the creative spark is alive and well, even if the business is in the doldrums.

In chronological order, here are my 10 favorite live music experiences of the past year:

Gully Boys @ Middle Earth Music Hall (2 February) – This working class band captures the essence of the area scene.  Every member has a day job, and they get together because they want to.  “If it ain’t fun, it ain’t worth doing” is their motto.  This annual “reunion” night, at the soon-to-close Bradford Hobbit Hole, was particularly inspiring, with a Dead-length set that ran past 1 AM.

Jenee Halstead House Concert (19 April) – Akin to the Renaissance system of patronage (without the religious guilt), affairs like this one, in an elegant Milton, Massachusetts home, helped struggling musicians earn a living and make fans – one at a time.  Lit by 28 candles, Halstead and her band took the intimate gathering back in time with songs from her wonderful album, “The River Grace.”

Trixie Whitley @ Bellows Falls Opera House (26 April) – Nothing prepared me for the raw emotion of this night, a tribute to the memory of Chris Whitley.  Trixie seemed to muster courage and strength with each note. By the end of the evening, she’d won the crowd as well as the artists who’d come to play her father’s music, memorably sitting in with her brother Dan and headliner Alejandro Escovedo.

Robert Plant & Alison Krause @ B of A Pavilion (5 June) – There was no Led Zeppelin reunion this year, and it likely won’t happen in 2009 thanks to Plant.  He’s having too much fun with T-Bone Burnett, Buddy Miller and fiddler/vocalist extraordinaire Krauss.  The acoustics at this waterfront show weren’t the best, but the sheer joy on stage made up for that.  “Black Dog” never sounded so good.

Sarah Borges @ Roots on the River (7 June) – Borges and her rockabilly boogie band, The Singles, provided non-stop energy for her early set.  The festival was blessed with perfect weather and stellar talent, but Sarah stole the show – at least until Fred Eaglesmith walked on stage to remind everyone why Roots on the River is known far and wide as “Fredfest.”

Mavis Staples @ Green River Festival (19 July) – She marched with Martin Luther King during the civil rights movement, which she called “the struggle,” and in the weeks following Barack Obama’s Democratic primary win, Staples performed with extra punch and power.  She reinvented “For What It’s Worth,” added a personal note to “Down In Mississippi” and brought many in the crowd to tears.

Collective Soul @ Meadowbrook (9 August) – In a de facto battle of the bands with Live and Blues Traveler, this sonic force of nature came out on top.  Toward the end of their set, lead singer Ed Roland hauled over a dozen fans up on the 8-foot high stage, to the shock and dismay of security.  One of the best nights at the region’s number one outdoor music facility, which won’t stay a hidden gem for long.

Lindsey Buckingham @ Lebanon Opera House (12 October) – Tickets for the upcoming Fleetwood Mac reunion are trending towards 300 dollars, but I doubt a night at the Enormodome could top this intimate show. Buckingham indulged his muse with several obscure Mac nuggets, performed multiple encores, and even took time out to sign a fan’s 35 year old copy of “Buckingham/Nicks”.

Molly Venter & Cahalen David Morrison @ Canoe Club (3 December) – Two musicians who’d never met before this night, thrown together by circumstance and management, traded songs while a room that often buries the talent on stage with dinner conversation stopped and took notice.  It wasn’t perfect, but it felt magical nonetheless.

Vienna Teng @ Iron Horse (8 December) – My best night of 2008 was, coincidentally, the last.  In a perfect world Teng, a literate songwriter and scary good piano player, would be a star on the order of Sarah MacLachlan, whom many have compared her to. Instead, she was on a 5-show club tour with Peter Bradley Adams, with nothing more luxurious than XM radio in the rental car towing her trailer from town to town.

Local Rhythms – RIAA Gives With One Hand, Takes With Other

lipstickpigMy first thought when I heard the news was, Panera Bread is sure gonna be crowded.

Since 2003, the Recording Industry Association of America sued over 35,000 people for illegal downloading of music from the Internet.  Unsurprisingly, this approach failed to make a dent on music piracy or increase legal music sales.

Now, after six years of legal intimidation aimed at college students, grandmothers and at least one dead person, the RIAA announced last Friday an end to lawsuits.

But it’s not an end to their ruthless brand of frontier justice, just a new approach to the same old – really, really old – game.

Henceforth, this hapless industry organization will let Internet service providers do their dirty work, through a policy called “graduated response.”

Here’s how it works.  RIAA learns of an illegal downloader.  How is a mystery, and since they’re a law unto themselves, probably beside the point.

They pass word to the ISP, who in turn emails the evildoer with threats to cut their service.

Miscreants ignore the charges at their peril.  According to news reports, after the third missive, a customer’s broadband connectivity is cut.

This may cause free Wi-Fi hotspots like Panera to grow in popularity.

Remember all the recent talk about lipstick and pigs?

Trading money for bandwidth may be a new tube of lipstick, but trust me – it’s the same old pig.

The ARS Technica blog asked RIAA president Cary Sherman, “is this essentially the system you used for the lawsuit campaign, only now directed at slightly different ends?”

“Yeah,” replied Sherman.

Are these guys ever going to enter the 21st century?

Consumer advocates are pushing for a flat tax solution, with everyone paying a monthly fee to download unlimited music.  The money is paid to copyright holders.

But since that approach won’t bring back the 100 percent margins of 1984, the industry keeps fighting the tide.

They see the Internet as the enemy, not a way to revitalize their business.

There’s more music today than ever before, but that doesn’t seem to count for much.  Maybe it’s because artists are smarter and less inclined to sell out their interests to people who know more about money than music.

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

The RIAA is fooling no one.  They may deputize new soldiers, but they’re still fighting a misguided war.

Here’s some non-RIAA entertainment for your consideration:

Friday: Last Kid Picked, Electra – Now in their 13th year, LKP plays an energetic mix of rock, soul and pop, covering the likes of everyone from the Commodores to Green Day.  For its part, Electra has been a steady supporter of live music in the area, presenting a range of shows from the hip-hop Rap the Vote gathering to country music from local faves Little Memphis.  Here’s hoping the trend continues in 2009.

Saturday: Rich Thomas, Casa del Sol – Ascutney’s recently opened Mexican eatery expands its musical menu to Friday (with Ted Davis playing) and Saturday nights. Rich fronts the popular About Gladys; tonight, he’s solo, with a funky voice that’s a hybrid of Tom Petty and Wilson Pickett.  Next week, Wise Rokobili settles into a winter-long Saturday residency.   Jason Cann continues to run the Thursday open mike night.

Sunday: Mike Gordon, Portsmouth Music Hall – While rumors swirl about a possible Phish appearance at this year’s Bonnaroo Festival, the band’s bassist Gordon is touring smaller venues in support of his recently released album, “The Green Sparrow.”  The show, which also features local heroes Bow Thayer and the Perfect Trainwreck, stops at Killington’s Pickle Barrel Monday.

Monday: New Riders of the Purple Sage, Iron Horse – Almost 40 years after they began as a vehicle for Jerry Garcia to practice steel guitar, these early progenitors of country rock are still going strong, albeit without founder John Dawson, who retired to Mexico a few years back.  Fitting for a man who wrote songs like “Panama Red” and “Henry,” the tale of a smuggler who headed south with hopes of returning “holding 20 keys of Gold” – and not the kind that open doors.

Tuesday: Ted Mortimer, Canoe Club – This hard working guitarist had a busy year, releasing a great album with his band Dr. Burma, and playing in a variety of configurations all over the area.  Tonight, it’s a quieter affair than the raucous shows Ted plays with Dr. Burma.  Elegant, stylish and evincing a wonderfully soft touch, his music selection will be drawn from standards like “Misty” and “The Way You Look Tonight” – very pleasant indeed.

Wednesday: Revampt, Imperial Lounge – If you like hard rock, you’ll enjoy this Springfield quartet.  There’s plenty happening tonight, though, like Dog Dayz at Salt Hill Newport, About Gladys playing the pub’s main location in Lebanon, First Night fun from Burlington to NoHo.  Check out yellowhousemedia.com or midrivermusic.com for a full breakdown.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from Local Rhythms!

Local Rhythms – Dreaming of An Alt Christmas

tenoutoftennEvery year at this time I tend to crank up the holiday music. My tastes run to tunes with roasting chestnuts, sleigh rides and flying reindeer, as well as subversive standbys like Jackson Browne’s “Rebel Jesus” and Steve Earle’s “Christmas In Washington.”

But somehow, the old songs aren’t singing like they used to.  After the year we’ve had, I’ve begun to wonder – is Santa Claus really coming to town?

Though I’m not curled up in a fetal position listening to “River,” a song like “Santa’s Lost His Mojo” is closer to my personal zeitgeist these days.

That cool Jeremy Lister track is one of many gems on “Christmas,” a new compilation from a group of Nashville alt-rockers collectively known as Ten out of Tenn.

Why’s it so hard to write a Christmas carol? With a few exceptions, most holiday music is either too earnest or just plain goofy.

But the original songs on the Ten out of Tenn disc evince a third way, which I think of as “sentimental modern.”

Well, except for one.

With lyrics describing a dispirited Santa “down in Mexico drinking tequila and wine,” “Santa’s Lost His Mojo” really is goofy – but in a modern way.

Other cuts on “Christmas” evoke the past while staying rooted in the present.  Butterfly Boucher contributes the Phil Spector-inspired “Cinnamon and Chocolate,” which both consoles and celebrates.

Trent Dabbs’ “Raise the Tree” exhorts, “bring the ones that you love just close enough” – but not too close at Christmas.

Who hasn’t felt like that during the holiday season?

“Christmas Time,” a beautifully melodic Andy Davis song, really hits the mark.  Davis observes that, for some people, Christmas “sneaks up on you like cold weather, whether or not you’re ready.”

Looking out at the milling masses, they only see what might have been – a great relationship ended, a dream that’s not coming true.

It’s at that point that emotions can tug equally towards despair and hope.

Celebrating with a backward glance is a form of moving forward.

Or as Davis eloquently puts it, “it heals and it hurts to remember.”

No wonder Nashville is such a songwriter’s Mecca – even the indies are poets.

“Christmas” is the third anthology from Ten out of Tenn, a project begun in 2005 to get the word about alt music in a town that’s known for country.

Check out their MySpace page, streaming most of the record.

And don’t miss these local events:

Thursday: Christmas Revels, Hopkins Center – Children’s tickets are only $5.00 for tonight’s performance of “The King and the Fool,” which plays through the weekend.  Much of the show’s charm can be found in the local energy that’s made it happen for the past 34 years.  The role of the King is played by film and television actor Alan Gelfant,  but most of the cast comes from the Hanover area.  Doing it for love – that’s my kind of music!

Friday: foreverinmotion, Chester Underground – Emo rocker Brenden Thomas’s stage name refers to his touring regimen, traveling the country and winning fans one at a time, club by club.  Vermont is Brenden’s home base (he helped start the Chester Underground in the basement of his favorite restaurant), so this gig should have elements of celebration that have nothing to do with the holidays. Brenden has a new collection of muisic due in March.

Saturday: Stonewall, Heritage – Speaking of hometown heroes, Stonewall is the de factor house band at this Charlestown second-floor bar, awkward shaped room and all.  It’s been a good year for Josh, Ryan and Phil, who (finally) released their first album, and learned to play “Mississippi Queen” – well that was good for me, actually, since I’d been bugging them to play that old Mountain song for awhile.

Sunday: O’hanleigh, Salt hill Pub – A Celtic Christmas performance, with a  suggested $5 cover to benefit the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.  It’s also a Tuohy family event.   Brother Daniel, who’s very active with the charity, will stop by the describe the search for a cure for this disease.  Dan also is running for LLS in next year’s Boston Marathon, and God bless him for that.  Middlebury’s O’hanleigh, of course, plays real Irish music.

Monday: Rick Redington & the Luv, Uncle Iggy’s – A new performance space and Internet café, located on the second floor above the Pizza Jerks eatery, welcomes a hard-working, fun-loving band for music on what’s normally an off night.  I love one of the terms Redington uses to describe his band’s roots-y music – rastabilly.  A picture of Bob Marley with a banjo springs to mind.

Tuesday: Wrensong, Parker House – Sue Neighbor, Oliver Goodenough, Eliabeth Harley, Frank Fields, Helen and Dave Clark sing a mix of Christmas Carols and secular music from the Renaissance.  You can check out samples of Wrensong in all their a capella glory at Dave’s wonderful web site, yellowhousemedia.com.

Claremont Middle School Holiday Concert

cms-xmas08More Photos of CMS Concert

As she readied the chorus for the final selection of Tuesday’s Claremont Middle School “Holiday Highlights” concert, Ginny Formidoni mouthed one instruction, sotto voce, to her charges,

“Sing loud,” she whispered.

With good reason – at that point, nearly 175 student musicians were assembled, ready to perform a four-song medley of seasonal standards.  The throng included the combined 7th and 8th grade bands, and a large chorus drawn from singers of all three grade levels.

More impressive than the size of the gathering was the quality of the numbers played.  The one-hour show, led by band director Seth Moore and chorus conductor Formidoni, shed new light on some familiar favorites.  The arrangement of “Let It Snow” and “Winter Wonderland” as performed by the 7th and 8th grade chorus was bright and bouncy.

The CMS Jazz Band gave snap and swagger to and old standard with the recast “Swingin’ Jingle” version of “Jingle Bells.”

The evening began after Moore finished guiding the last of the band members to their seats, offering words of encouragement to each as they passed – “tuck the shirt in, looking good, lose the gum, you look great.”

The 6th grade band began the music with a crisp rendition of “Blues Blueprint,” including a brief, spot-on trombone solo from Luke Brunelle.  An animated percussion section helped the young band’s final number, “Flourish,” earn sustained applause from the packed house.

There was lots of clapping, harmony and tradition in the combined chorus’s performance of “Children Go Tell It,” an energized gospel number written by Greg Gilpin.

The CMS Jazz Band’s three-song section included “Feliz Navidad,” much polished since their October workout with Arturo Sandoval.  Even two months after the famed trumpet player’s visit, Moore was still giddy about Sandoval’s time with the band prior to his performance at the  Hopkins Center in Hanover.

“He never works with kids this age,” said Moore before the show.  Introducing the Jose Feliciano Christmas song, he called Sandoval “the greatest trumpet player alive playing Latin music.”

The Jazz Band’s version of “Go Daddy-o” was a concert highlight, with rapid syncopation, and a sharp call-and-response bridge straight out of Cab Calloway.   The well-practiced percussion section also delivered tight rhythms.

Samantha Perry and Victoria Webster each soloed impressively during the combined chorus performance of “Where Are You, Christmas?”  They received spontaneous applause midway through the song, first featured in “Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas.”

“We opened with our closer,” said Moore after combined 7th and 8th grade band played the quick-moving “Encanto.”

“A few sixth graders snuck in to the group,” added Moore, who then quipped, “I went to the University of Illinois, so I accept bribes.”

But the bargain struck was for talent, not money, as the ad hoc combined band shone for both songs, keeping up with a challenging musical chart during a medley of holiday classics.

Tuesday’s concert was another example of how the CMS music program continues to deliver impressive results, with high participation from an enthusiastic and talented group of youngsters.

Sky Family – Part Riverdance, Part Revival

picture-2For a long time, it looked like Tom Petrofsky would follow his musical dream alone. Tom is a lifetime musician.  As a young man in the 1960’s, he and a friend headed off to San Francisco in search of the great bands of that era.

Unfortunately, they made the trek from Tom’s college in Connecticut to the West Coast a few days before the Woodstock Music Festival in 1969.

“We got to Haight-Ashbury and all the bands were gone,” says Petrofsky, though the experience led to a spiritual awakening that’s guided his life ever since.

But his four children – Seth, Joel, Gabe and daughter Miriam – didn’t share a passion for music.

“It’s every parent and musician’s dream to have their children involved,” he says. “I did my best to coax them into performing or playing, and I couldn’t get any response out of them. Then, finally when they were in their teens and early twenties, suddenly everybody started playing instruments – completely apart from me.  Then we began to really enjoy playing together.”

That, combined with a shared love for the Celtic rhythms of Prince Edward Island, where the family has lived since relocating from New Hampshire in 1989, created the spark for the Sky Family band.

The Sky Family stops at Claremont’s First Baptist Church Sunday night at 6 for an open-to-the-public appearance. Petrofsky calls their performance revue “Fiery Faith & Fiddles” – it’s a hybrid of “Riverdance” energy and evangelical fervor.

Sunday’s special “Celtic Christmas” show features “lots of rhythm and harmony,” says Tom – and plenty of step dancing.

The group consists of Tom on lead guitar, fiddle and piano, Seth on bass, Joel playing lead fiddle, flute and saxophone, Gabe on guitar and drums and Miriam, the youngest child, playing piano.

Everyone sings and dances.

“Gabe is our lead dancer, Miriam can keep up with him almost,” says Tom. “The rest of us kind of fill out.”

He adds, “if you saw Gabe dancing and you put him next to the lead dancer in ‘Riverdance,’ the ordinary person couldn’t tell them apart.”

“Celtic Christmas” is divided into two 45-minute segments, one consisting of the fast-paced Irish music the group plays year-round, the second filled with Celtic-flavored holiday songs like “What Child Is This?”

The show also includes several humorous and inspirational skits.

Neil Knudson gave the show high marks when they stopped in Middletown, Connecticut. “The quality of the songs, musicianship and step dancing is stunning,” he said, noting that the spiritual component is not heavy-handed.

“The gospel is presented in a clear, down-to-earth manner which does not make the listener feel as though they were being manipulated or put on the spot,” said Knudson.   “The Skys truly have a wonderful, effective, and unique ministry.”

The Sky family also performs Friday and Saturday at the Hunger Mountain Christian Assembly in Waterbury, Vermont.

If You’re Going:

The Sky Family
First Baptist Church
56 Main Street, Claremont
6:00 PM
Tickets: $12/adults, $10/seniors, $8/children $40/family
Call 542-2344 for more information

Local Rhythms – Evenings of Bliss

Canoe Club 3 December 2008

Last Wednesday, I stepped into Canoe Club hoping for the best, and was rewarded with a seat close to the small stage.

That’s essential to hear the music, and sometimes not a guarantee.

Though the Hanover restaurant hosts live performers every night of the year except Thanksgiving and Christmas, music is one of many elements, not the center of attention.

But the players that night caused a lot of diners to put down their forks and pick up their ears.

Molly Venter and Cahalen David Morrison had just barely met.  Seriously – Molly said she’d asked someone on the street, “are you Cahalen?”

But after a bit of tuning up, they found their chemistry playing de rigueur standards like “Angel From Montgomery” and, in the spirit of the season, Joni Mitchell’s “River.”

Venter gave the latter some edge, singing “I made my baby cry,” and sounding like she might have enjoyed it – just a little.

Her own songs, like “Red Rubber Balls” and “Love Me Like You Mean It,” had a folk-y, Fiona Apple feel to them.

Morrison, a talented picker, switched between lap steel, guitar and mandolin, playing a strong repertoire of originals.  I particularly liked “Humble Hands.”

So, apparently, did Canoe Club owner John Chapin, who more than once took a break from his duties to listen in appreciatively.

Friday, it was all about the music, as I watched a double bill with singer-songwriters Meg Hutchinson and Chris Pureka at Boccelli’s.

A line from Pureka’s opening number stuck with me – “it might be an ordinary day/but it feels different to me.”

Music sustains me – the way a note bends, a phrase turns, or more often a combination of the two.

The spark of discovery – Cahalen David Morrison singing of “rain patting the ground like humble hands,” or Chris Pureka telling the musical story of her 95-year old grandmother in “Swann Song” – is a kind of nourishment to me.

I spoke with Cahalen between sets.  He’s from New Mexico, he told me, but he hasn’t been in the same place for longer than two weeks since last June.

He probably won’t go home until next summer.  Friday, he plays Armadillo’s in Keene.

I asked him why he does it.

“As long as I can eat and play music, I’m fine,” he told me.

It’s funny how this strange, seemingly intangible thing moves us so.

Here’s the rest of the week:

Thursday: Les Miserables, Briggs Opera House – The world’s most popular musical gets a local run, with Tim Shew in the lead role.  Shew plays Valjean, a reformed thief who cannot escape his past.  “Les Miz” plays through January 4; there’s an Opening Night gala tomorrow, with a cast reception after the show, as well as a “Celebrity Sunday” Q&A December 14.  Epic story, great songs, you can’t go wrong with this performance.

Friday:  Gandalf Murphy & the Slambovian Circus of Dreams, Bradford Academy – A mainstay of the now-shuttered Middle Earth Music Hall returns to Bradford for a special “Christmas with Gandalf” show.  Performing traditional songs “with a Slambovian twist” along with favorites like “Circus of Dreams” and “Alice in Space.”  Some of the proceeds will benefit the Oxbow High School music department.

Saturday: The Strangelings, Tunbridge Town Hall – An area folk music supergroup of sorts, with Pete and Maura Kennedy, along with Hungrytown’s Ken Anderson and Rebecca Hall, talented songwriter Christina Thompson Lively, Eric Lee and Cheryl Prashker.  They cover some of my favorites, including Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” and “White Bird,” a venerable chestnut from It’s a Beautiful Day.

Sunday: Nutcracker, Claremont Opera House – It can’t be Christmas without a sugar plum fairy, as the New Hampshire School of Ballet performs Tchaikovsky’s holiday masterpiece for the fourth year in a row.  The story of toys come to life has surely scared the wits out of a few small children over the years – or at least that’s the excuse my sisters used for not being able to sleep on Christmas Eve.

Tuesday: Irish Sessions, Salt hill Pub – In addition to this weekly traditional song circle, which starts early and never gets old, the Pub is reviving open mike night this Thursday.  December is rich with talent on every evening, at both the Lebanon and Newport locations, where Oneside does a twofer next week.  The always-stellar Sirsy, the biggest sounding duo on the planet, play this Saturday on the green.

Wednesday: Dave Clark, Parker House – Dave has more hats than Bartholomew Cubbins, if you suss my Seussian drift.  The Yellow House web site just received a revamp, making it easier to navigate through all great local music streaming there.  A new episode of “Homegrown” featuring a summer performance from area jam band Twiddle just went up.  Oh, and he plays in more bands than I can count.

Meg Hutchinson Comes Up Full

Photo Credit - Desdemona Burgin

It’s an axiom of songwriting: suffering begets art.  Personal struggle at the heart of so much great music makes one wonder if some troubadours wouldn’t be happy without misery.

Do they will their sorrow and heartbreak simply to feed the muse?

“Oh God, I sure don’t will it to happen,” laughs Meg Hutchinson.  “If I had a choice….”

The Boston-based folksinger’s own bouts with depression yielded “Come Up Full,” one of the year’s most fully realized albums.  With unflinching honesty, Hutchinson explores “the dull roar of loss” that led to moments of “one girl in a hospital bed” trying to recall the words to “Over the Rainbow” as she plunges into darkness.

“The nights can take so long,” she sings.

“At the core, it’s a very personal journey and those are the songs that are the most honest and at times the most difficult to sing, that I may ever write,” says Hutchinson.

But the record, Hutchinson’s fourth since her eponymous 1996 debut, doesn’t dwell on her difficulties. Rather, “Come Up Full” celebrates the journey back.

It’s an album Nick Drake might have made if he’d managed to beat his demons.

“Most of these songs came out of the toughest years,” Meg says, “and really recognizing this huge spectrum of emotion in my life, and hitting rock bottom – then coming through it kind of like a small death.

“But the record does celebrate coming through the other side of it.  That’s the biggest feeling that I’m left with.”

Indeed, from the opening song, which proclaims “I belong to the day now,” to the pronouncement, “if you look real close you might see scars/but me, I’m only seeing stars,” it’s ultimately a very positive work.

Hutchinson balances self-effacing introspection with compassion for the weary on “Home.” “I won’t tell you where I’ve been,” she begins, “only that it’s so good to be back home,”

She ends with words of encouragement for the sad and lonely: “Let me offer I’ve been there/and one day that darkness ends.”

“I do feel like I’m a very optimistic person, and that was tested to the core,” she says.  “I think that test is in there in those songs.  But overall, I am a very hopeful person.

“Someone once told me something about songwriting that really stuck with me.  Every love song has a hint of what you might lose,” she says.  “Every song about a breakup has some glimmer of a fond memory, if it’s to be true to our experience.”

In that spirit, the title track depicts thin hope as an empty net cast into the water – with happy outcomes: “Just when you swear it off, those nets are gonna come up full.”

Hutchinson says it’s a song she “kind of wrote before I needed it, and then I really needed it and it kind of saw me through that rough time.  It gave me a sense of get up and show up for work, and at some point things will change, and those nets will come up full.”

Some of her strongest work has nothing to do with her own struggles.  “Song for Jeffrey Lucey” tells the true story of a young Iraq War veteran, haunted by his experiences,  who committed suicide.

“Memory was a cancer that you could not live without,” observes Hutchinson, “But you could not live with it.”

“America,” written at the outset of war in 2003, powerfully employs images in nature to portray the bipolarity of political discourse.

“I was trying to write a song that explored this lack of moderation in our country, and the way when we go to an extreme it almost turns into its opposite,” she says,

“I was staying in a little cabin up in Maine on a lake and it was late winter and the ice was just starting to break up. It can make those incredibly loud rumblings and poppings.  All night I just lay there listening to it.  It just sounded like gunfire, and I thought here I am in this beautiful setting and across the world this is going on.”

The song reflects, she says, “this huge love for the country but this confusion.  For me it’s really a sad anthem.”

Hutchinson says she found another idea for the song when she spotted “a helium balloon, just to the point of being deflated.  The ribbon was touching the lake and it was kind of skating around in the middle of the pond and it wasn’t sinking and it wasn’t’ floating off.

“I thought, here’s an image of moderation. If only we can find that kind of balance.”

For her own equilibrium, says Hutchinson, “lately I’ve been singing ‘America The Beautiful’ just to offset that song – because I’m feeling very hopeful.”

Hutchinson was born and raised in the Berkshires, and moved to Boston in 2002.  Since then she’s become a steady force in the area folk scene, and was recently nominated for her second Boston Music Award.  Does the rich array of local talent shape her own work?

“I often ask myself that,” she replies.  “How can you not be influenced when you’re surrounded by so many great artists? That being said, I look back at the records I made before moving there and with the exception of having hopefully honed my craft a little bit and having the opportunity to work with Crit Harmon in the studio, I don’t see a huge difference in the way I’ve been writing prior to moving out there and meeting everyone.”

Harmon (Lori McKenna, Martin Sexton, Mary Gauthier) produced “Come Up Full” and 2004’s “The Crossing.” Hutchinson says he’s taught her a lot about song structure.

“I didn’t have a good sense for the layout of a song.  That can make structure really challenging.  If you don’t do the bridge at the right moment, or repeat the chorus enough, it can be difficult to know how to bring the instruments in.  That’s what I really learned from Crit.”

Even while living in bustling Somerville, Meg remains a country girl.  “I still manage to get out in the woods when I’m not touring, just about every day with the dog, and even to a point where I don’t hear the traffic.  I get lost in the woods,” she says.

Meg Hutchinson w/ Chris Pureka
Friday, December 5, 7:30 PM
Boccelli’s on the Canal, Bellows Falls
Tickets $12/advance, $14/door

Local Rhythms – My Kind of Must-See TV

dish-networkI admit I’m a media junkie, but my habit gives me perspective.  As an unpaid entertainment taste tester, I’ve tried everything.

What I’m saying is – you can trust me.

The endless stream of television provider ads would have you believe that quantity is all that matters.

Comcast claims to have enough on-demand programming for two lifetimes.

DirecTV touts the most high definition channels (not mentioning that 30 of them are off-limits regional sports stations like MSG).

I’ve no quarrel with excess, but Dish Network proves it’s not all about the numbers.

I’m sticking with Dish for the same reason I have a Mac – it works.

Begin with a smart user interface that provides rich details like original airdate and episode number.  Add custom program guides and a dual receiver with an IR remote control that lets me pause shows on one TV and resume them on another.

Dish also has a high gadget factor. Since activating the USB port on my VIP 622 receiver (for a one-time charge) I can now back up my favorite shows to a portable hard drive – no more DVD box sets for me.

There’s also an iPod-like device available with built-in Dish compatibility, to record shows for portable viewing.

Oh, and did I mention that the programming is top-notch?

This weekend, I watched “Sound Explosion” on the Smithsonian HD Channel, a new six-part series about the evolution of American music hosted by Morgan Freeman.

I learned how B.B. King got his name (it’s short for “Blues Boy”) and why he calls his guitar “Lucille” (something about a roadhouse fire after a fight over a girl) on the first segment, “Birth of the Blues.”

Part two weaves disparate elements like Eric Clapton, Buddy Guy and Guitar Slim with the swampy histrionics of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Carlos Santana, while the jazz-focused third episode features archival footage (in high def, no less) of Miles Davis’s final performance at Montreaux in 1991.

It’s amazing stuff.

Dish isn’t perfect.  It huffily cancelled all 15 Voom channels last May, effectively killing the best provider of true-HD music programming, not to mention high-def kung fu movies.

But they do offer east and west feeds of HBO, Showtime and Starz – in HD.

So I’ll cut them a break, though I hope they’ll kiss and make up with Voom.

OK, enough of my excessive habit.  What’s happening in the live music scene this week?

Thursday: Ray Davies, Higher Ground – Though his solo work isn’t on a par with the best of the Kinks, Davies is worth seeing for his talents as a raconteur alone.  Heck, VH1 created the “Storytellers” series just to hear Ray read aloud from his autobiography.  He’s one of the few survivors of the British Invasion who’s still trying to find something interesting to say rather than just relying on old hits.

Friday: Song Circle, Hotel Coolidge – A First Friday tradition returns with an open invitation to anyone with a song to sing and something to sing it with – things get underway at 4 PM.  White River Junction’s musical renaissance also includes the Tuckerbox Café singer-songwriter series tonight, with Betsey Stewart hosting a 6 PM start.  Between the two, there’s more than enough to get your folk on.

Saturday: The Thang, Sophie & Zeke’s – A bigger space means bigger bands.  Headlining an all-day slate of music that includes an afternoon set by Sensible Soul and performance from alt-rocker Abby Payne, this New York-based funk band plays high energy dancing music well past the dinner hour.  It’s all part of the official grand opening of the new S&Z’s location in Claremont’s Opera House Square.  Celebrate good times, come on!

Sunday: Samirah Evans, Center at Eastman – This elegant jazz vocalist was a mainstay in her hometown of New Orleans, performing at Snug Harbor, Sweet Lorraine’s, the House of Blues and other well-known clubs.  Her debut album made the Times-Picayune’s Top 10 in 2002.  When Hurricane Katrina hit, Evans and her husband, a Vermont native, moved to Brattleboro.   Sunday’s set kicks off this year’s JOSA series.

Monday: Vienna Teng, Iron Horse – Blending elements of classical, rock and baroque folk, Teng performs epic songs fueled by her magnificent soprano.  She’s similar to Tori Amos and Sarah MacLachlan in that all three can fill a room with just a piano and a voice to sing with.  I prefer Vienna’s songwriting for its depth and vision, however. She plays solo tonight; with a new album due next year, a full band tour should follow in the spring.

Wednesday: Emily Lanier & Fred Haas, Canoe Club –
The former New Kind of Blue singer joins up with Haas, an ace piano and saxophone player and perhaps (according to CC’s official schedule) talented guitarist Jason Ennis.  Whatever the combo, Emily’s elegant voice will surely add to the dinner ambience.