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.