Local Rhythms – “Spectacle” Is Anything But (That’s Good)

picture-81I don’t care what celebrities wear, who they date or where they dine. TMZ.com leaves me cold, Perez Hilton needs to be voted off the island, and the sight of Barbara Walters’ making a big star cry makes me wince.

But I find the backstory of creation fascinating. “Inside the Actors Studio” embodies this; host James Lipton is a master at revealing the process of art coming to life.

Much to my surprise, Elvis Costello shares this talent with Lipton. On Sunday, I skipped the Oscar red carpet party to catch up on “Spectacle,” Costello’s artist-to-artist interview show on the Sundance Channel.

Over a 13-episode run, which ends this week, rock’s former angry young man has conversed with everyone from Elton John to Zooey Deschanel. He discussed saxophone playing with Bill Clinton.

One particularly memorable show featured a “song pull” with Kris Kristofferson, John Mellencamp, Norah Jones and Rosanne Cash. Costello remarked that Rosanne’s father Johnny Cash pretty much invented the concept of musicians passing around the guitar, each trying to outdo the other. What was that like, he wondered.

She talked about hearing Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” and Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee” for the first time in her father’s living room.

Costello is privy to all sorts of rock and roll nuggets. I had no idea Lou Reed wrote schlock songs for a budget label (the musical equivalent of the Dollar Store) early in his career, or that rock’s Prince of Darkness grew up on doo-wop 45s before forming the Velvet Underground.

Speaking of influences, I’d never noticed the line connecting the singing styles of Bing Crosby, George Jones and recent guest James Taylor until Elvis mentioned it. The sensitive Taylor even let it slip that he’d taken Costello’s “sticky Valentine” line in “Allison” personally when he heard it in 1977.

“Spectacle” is full of such unguarded moments, and it’s easy to imagine these relaxed conversations happening off-camera. As someone who would have given anything to be a fly on the wall in Johnny Cash’s living room, I live for this stuff.

So while you watch the E! Channel dish on Mickey Rourke’s dog hair accessorizing, or poor movie stars reduced to dining on chicken potpie, I’ll be watching “Spectacle.”

Though I have to wonder – were there really only three Oscar-worthy songs written in 2008?

Oh well, there’s more than that in the live music calendar:

Thursday: Arthur James, Salt hill 2 – An open jam session, with amps and microphones provided, is hosted by area bluesman James, who usually rocks it up with his band Northbound, but calls tonight’s ensemble “Unacoustic Mayhem”. This is a standard open mike affair, with a bluesier touch. It beats American Idol by a country mile.

Friday: Juke Joynt, Seven Barrel Brewery – Take one part Foghat and one part Buddy Guy, mix it with a bodacious X factor that results from the chemistry of three players who do itinerant musical work all over the area (including tomorrow night’s monthly Gully Boys set, which should make for an easy load-in), and you have this band. Juke Joynt focuses on original music inspired by the blues (when they were real) and classic rock (before it got cheesy).

Saturday: Chris O’Brien & Jenee Halstead, Boccelli’s – When I first heard Jenee Halstead’s evocative “River Grace” last year, I immediately began pushing Ray Massucco to bring the singer-songwriter to Bellows Falls. Tonight is an amazing double bill. Headliner O’Brien, who’s been praised in these pages before, is right at home in this room.

Sunday: Children’s Cancer Lifeline Benefit, Pat’s Peak Ski Area – A show to raise money for an organization formed in 1995 in support of New Hampshire families coping with childhood cancer features Roxanne & the Voodoo Rockers (who kick off the weekend-long event on Saturday), Arthur James and the Fran Calo Band. Great music, worthy cause – that’s a fine combo.

Monday: Hartford Sound Alliance, Dartmouth College – Experimental music from a Connecticut-based trio featuring two laptop computers and several pieces of wood. Today, they perform with composers from the Electroacoustic Graduate program at Dartmouth College, doing multimedia improvisations and shorter electronic pieces. Call the college for show location.

Tuesday: Ed Eastridge, Canoe Club – Tasty licks from the one of the area’s finest jazz guitarists, and he’s a smart singer too. One wag described his music as “like therapy” – and I won’t disagree. There is something quite soothing about his restrained, delicate touch in the midst of life’s vicissitudes.

Wednesday: CORE Ensemble, Redfern Arts Center – A few days past the end of Black History Month, the chamber music-based returns to Keene State College to perform Ain’t I A Woman! The show celebrates the life and times of four remarkable African-American women, with a musical score drawn from the spiritual music of the Deep South, the jazz age, and contemporary music.

Local Rhythms – Stretching Your Music Dollar

motvbbk08It costs over 150 bucks for an open-air seat at this summer’s (rain or shine) Jimmy Buffett show.  Tickets for the Elton John/Billy Joel double bill at Gillette Stadium in July run north of $200, after fees and parking are counted.  Britney Spears wants $250 for her trainwreck tour stop next month at Mohegan Sun.

Before you blow your vacation fund on a night with a diva or a dinosaur, answer this – what else could all that money buy?

I’ll do the math for you.

If you skip Fleetwood Mac ($175), you can see Chris O’Brien/Jenee Halstead (2/28), Seth Glier (3/13), Richard Shindell 3/25) and Mary Gauthier (4/19) at Boccelli’s.  You’ll still have enough left over for a four-day Roots on the River pass (6/11-14).

All cheaper than Sir Elton and Billy.

Rosanne Cash will play songs from her new album (“The List”) at the lovely Stone Mountain Arts Center in Brownfield, Maine on July 16. Blow off Britney, spend the night with a mature woman, and get a “getaway package” including dinner and Inn at Crystal Lake accommodations, transportation to the show, primo seats and breakfast in the morning.

Or how about four consecutive nights of great music in Burlington?  On Thursday, April 11, catch Big Head Todd & the Monsters, Americana chanteuse Tift Merritt Friday and the tuneful Felice Brothers on Saturday.

Wrap up the long weekend with headbanging from Sevendust on Sunday.

That’s four Higher Ground shows, at around 20 bucks each, leaving enough for a hotel room, all for less than the cost of a Motley Crüe “Diamond” ticket at the Verizon Wireless Center ($334.00, 3/17).

Phish twilight zone victims (thousands of fans got dumped from queues by Live Nation computers before they could buy seats for the upcoming reunion tour) now face scalper prices in the hundreds of dollars.

Bummer, dude.

How about a NoHo jam band trifecta instead? See Max Creek at Pearl Street (3/13, $15), then moe (3/29, $26) and Umphrey’s McGee (4/8, $25) at the Calvin Theatre.  Buy a bootlegger’s recording machine with the money you save.

Great shows are coming to area opera houses, any combination of which is a better deal than seeing Jimmy Buffett in the rain.  In May, Natalie MacMaster performs in Claremont, while the Dublin City Ramblers (3/10), bluesman Joe Bonamassa (4/5) and the Indigo Girls (4/11) are slated to visit Lebanon.

Times are tough – stretch that dollar.  Here are some additional entertainment bargains:

Thursday: Open Mike With Tad Davis, Jesse’s – A new venue jumps into the open mike game.  Singer/songwriter Davis is an excellent choice for ringmaster.  He emcees at Skunk Hollow, and entertains at a range of area nightspots, including Firestones and Casa del Sol.  He even plays on his nights off – I saw Davis step away from his dinner to play a few tunes at Sophie & Zeke’s a few nights ago.

Friday: Jen Crowell & The Woods Vehicle, Brattleboro Museum and Art Center – Crowell opened last June’s “Concert for the Cause” at the Lebanon Opera House and got a great response.  This is a CD release party for “Cold Front,” a record that has a little bit of country (“Hey Dixon”) and a whole lot of soul, a quality that her old band (Grace Potter & the Nocturnals) lost in spades when Jen left.

Saturday: Red Hot Juba, Salt hill Pub – These guys exude Dixieland, blues and a maple-flavored hybrid they call “Green Mountain Swing.”  It’s a unique sound that earned them the title of “fastest rising band” in their hometown of Burlington. With St. Patrick’s Day fast approaching (the Pub is co-sponsor of the aforementioned Dublin City Ramblers show), things are heating up on the Green.

Sunday: Kris Kristofferson, Colonial Theatre – Rhodes scholar, actor, veteran – he turned down a professorship at West Point to try songwriting.  “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” “Loving Her Was Easier,” “Me & Bobby McGee” – guess that worked out OK.  The 72-year old Kristofferson is still at it, releasing albums (2006’s excellent “This Old Road”) and acting, most recently playing Jennifer Aniston’s dad in “He’s Just Not That Into You.”

Monday: Parliament/Funkadelic, Higher Ground – If James Brown was the Godfather of Soul, then George Clinton is the Sultan of Funk.  So what’s he doing on a CMT reality show, for goodness’ sake?  He released an album last year with guests Carlos Santana, Sly Stone and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, his 1993 single, “Paint the White House Black,” is quite prescient now. He doesn’t need to go country.

Wednesday: Laughter on the 23rd Floor, Briggs Opera House – Nathan Lane channeled Sid Caeser in the Broadway (and later television movie) version of this Neil Simon memoir of his early days as a writer on “Your Show of Shows.”  There’s a serious undercurrent of creeping McCarthyism in this humorous play, which opens tonight.

Local Rhythms – Musical Advice for the Lovelorn

valentinesAs anyone who’s seen “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” or read Anita Shreve’s book “Where Or When” knows, nothing sings romance like a mix tape.  With that in mind, here are 10 songs guaranteed to put a little spark in your lover’s fire this Valentine’s Day.

Wonderful Tonight, Eric Clapton – 27 years of marriage has taught me that there’s only one answer to the question, “how do I look?” (besides pretending you didn’t hear).  Don’t flub it, and your date starts on a good note.

You Turn Me On I’m a Radio, Joni Mitchell – This one works for a girl who wants to woo her guy, and is particularly effective in reverse. It’s a sensitive chap with some Joni in his collection.

What a Wonderful World, Art Garfunkel – Sam Cooke did the original, but this slow, smooth reinterpretation, with James Taylor and Paul Simon joining the honey-throated Garfunkel, wins the prize.

Save the Last Dance for Me, Drifters – Written by Doc Pomus, this tune began as notes scribbled on the back of a napkin as the polio-stricken songwriter watched from a wheelchair while his new bride danced at their wedding.

How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You), Marvin Gaye – Truth be told, you could make a whole mix tape of nothing but Motown (or, for that matter, Holland-Dozier-Holland) hits, but this oft-covered Marvin Gaye number tops the list.

Something in the Way She Moves, James Taylor – So good it spawned another song, when George Harrison lifted the opening phrase and built one of the last great Beatles ballads around it.  His plagiarism problems didn’t begin with “My Sweet Lord”.

When You Say Nothing At All, Allison Krauss – Keith Whitley’s version went to number one on the country charts before his tragic death in 1989, but it’s Krauss’s lilting and gorgeous tribute that lingers in my mind.

If I Needed You, Townes Van Zandt – The Emmylou Harris/Don Williams duet is the definitive version, but the Texas troubadour’s ode to love, as raw and real as the codeine fog that birthed it, is the one that belongs on the mix disc.

Just The Way You Are, Billy Joel – Joel almost dropped this from “The Stranger” (his band hated it) until Linda Ronstadt and Phoebe Snow, who overheard the recording session, convinced him otherwise.  Good call.

My Funny Valentine, Chet Baker – The “Stairway to Heaven” of February 14.

Good luck, fellas. These choices may help too:

Thursday: Tableside Crooners, Canoe Club – Get an early start on Saturday as a capella singers make their way from table to table singing requests, in a modern update of the barbershop quartet idiom. This novel notion was no doubt born from the success of Marko the Magician’s tableside magic exploits.  The fun begins at 6, followed at 8 PM by guitarist Paul Rivers.

Friday: East Bay Jazz Ensemble, WRJ American Legion – This dance benefits CareNet of the Upper Valley, and features not only one of the best swing jazz combos in the area, but dance instruction from John & Sandra (with an assist from Sheila Larsen), and a great spread of hors d’oeuvres.  There’s nothing quite as romantic as dancing, is there? This is a semi-formal event, and advance purchase is required (call CareNet @ 603-298-6123).

Saturday: High Ground, Newport Opera House – Part of the 93rd Winter Carnival celebration, this band should heat things up with a lively country rock sound.  High Ground has a steady following at places like Shenanigans and Electra, where their mix of covers and originals gets the crowds dancing without fail.  They’re a nice addition to this old tradition.

Sunday: Larry Dougher & Adam McMahon, Quechee Club – An après-ski show featuring some first-rate blues.  I caught McMahon for the first time last Saturday at Sophie & Zeke’s, and he plays some crackling guitar.  Teamed with Dougher, one of the best axe men in the area, should be a real-barn burner.  The Quechee Club also welcomes Carlos Ocasio tomorrow and Juke Joynt Tuesday.

Monday: Metal Show, Stone Church – Amarcosa, Shores of Tundra, Aseethe, Imaginary Friends Club, Before the Sky perform an all-ages show at this Brattleboro venue, located at the corner of Main and Grove Streets.  Intense music at a fair price (five bucks), and judging from photos on the promoter’s web site, the shows draw a good crowd.

Wednesday: Newpoli, Colby-Sawyer College – This group of Berklee graduates brings the neglected world of Italian folk music to life which, with the exception of a small number of Neapolitan songs, they feel has not received its deserved attention and recognition, neither in Italy nor abroad, Well played and researched, these traditional styles, introduced to the audience often for the first time, expose the joy and beauty of this music, as well the ancient stories and rituals described in the lyrics.

3-Band Show Friday @ Claremont’s Imperial Lounge

aldenbarton21Modern rock fans will find a lot to like at the Imperial Lounge Friday, as three bands share the stage for a big night of music.  Each has its own unique style.  Keene-based Learn To Swim, with a pulsing, multilayered sound that recalls Smashing Pumpkins or Radiohead, opens the show.  Aldenbarton features piano-forward arrangements and two Claremont natives, while Low King has a reinvented style to go with their new name.

Aldenbarton front man Andrew St. Aubin is based in New York, but he’s excited about the hometown gig, the first he and (drummer and fellow Stevens High School alum) Jim Wood have played in 10 years.

Why so long?  “Basically, there hasn’t been a live venue for what we do,” says Andrew. “It’s awesome … I think the only better thing would be if it were an all ages show.”

Having recently changed their name from Lazy Day Puppet and moving from a jam band vibe to and edgier sound, Low King did a show at the Imperial and was surprised by a very large turnout.

Low King’s John Hudson and James Wood are old school chums; Hudson told him of the show’s success during a phone conversation, and Wood passed it on to St. Aubin.

“We were all kind of shocked by that,” Andrew says.  “Growing up in Claremont there was no live music to speak of.  We did alternative venues, bagel stores and coffee shops, playing for each other.  Now there was a place where we could actually play.”

“After hearing that we put a bug in John’s ear about wanting to do something, and he got a hold of us the next time he was putting together a night.”

St. Aubin left Claremont after he graduated from Stevens High School in 1998, and departed New Hampshire entirely in 2004 for New York City.  Initially, he played solo, albeit in a Howie Day way.

“When I got to the city, the friends I had that were musicians were already committed to other projects.  So I just wrote and recorded and mixed the backing tracks through an iPod,” he says.  “I played solo with an iPod for maybe 6 months.”

Eventually, “bands broke up, and I got my old pal Jim back,” he says.

Aldenbarton began life as a five-piece band – two guitars, bass, Wood on drums and Andrew on piano.  They were down to four members one night in Keene when their guitarist couldn’t make the gig.

“The response we got from that show gave us the confidence to keep doing it as a three piece,” says St. Aubin.  Their sound suggests piano power trios like Ben Folds Five, though they cite influences as diverse as the Beatles and Frank Zappa.

They released the digital-only “Exodus of the Eldest” EP last November.  A full-length record is in the works.

“We’re still coming into our own sonically and arranging things in a way that three people can carry,” St. Aubin says.

“It’s a lot of fun when we get going.”

Local Rhythms – Segue to Heaven

bf_port_bioThe other day, I received a mini-lecture on the perils of technology from one of those “I’m not a computer person” people.

Though I remain unconvinced to give up e-mail, digital newspapers or my beloved iPod, she did make me nostalgic for old school disk jockeys.

Among the changes wrought by the MP3 era is a near disappearance of the artful transition from one song to another.

These days, the word “segue” brings to mind the two-wheeled transportation of “Paul Blart Mall Cop” – not music.

But there was a time when the radio was a wonderful place of discovery and the hosts were spirit guides and alchemists.

“I am a DJ, I am what I play,” David Bowie once sang. “I’ve got believers.”

Once a guy named Joe Kelly on KOME-FM in San Jose, California laid the brooding harmonica opening of Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” atop the final notes of Meat Loaf’s “Bat of Hell,” and it made me want to go out and case the promised land.

Pandora, Slacker and Last.fm are fine at what they do, but they’re simply tools to find music.

They can’t make you feel it.

I miss that – but Bill Fitzhugh gives me hope.

Fitzhugh’s “All Hand Mixed Vinyl” show combines the passion of radio’s golden era with the skill of a great club DJ.

A typical set features Chicago’s “Southern California Purples” split down the middle, between it two versions of “I Am The Walrus,” and crowned with Todd Rundgren’s note for note recreation of “Strawberry Fields Forever.”

Every song is slip-cued and beat-mixed to perfection.

Last week’s half-hour featured a seamless transition of Zeppelin’s “Living Loving Maid” to Tull’s “Aqualung” to an obscure Grand Funk song, leading eventually to the commingling of the percussion sections of “Whole Lotta Love” and Chicago’s “I’m A Man.”

As Fitzhugh wove the two songs together multiple times, it was hard to tell where one ended and the other began.

Musically and thematically, it worked perfectly. Lyrics like “you need cooling/baby I’m not fooling,” and “I’m a man and I can’t help but love you so” are sentiments cut from the same cloth.

Fitzhugh’s been doing his thing for a couple of years now, once a week (with multiple replays) on the XM Deep Tracks satellite channel.

Considering that listening to “Abbey Road” on shuffle can turn me into a Luddite, it’s like a glass of cool water in the desert.

What else is cool this week?

Thursday: Eve 6, Pickle Barrel – It’s the sweet spot of ski season, which means my favorite winter place – the après-ski lodge – is bustling. Tonight, an LA-based alt-rock band that got its name from an X-Files episode carries on with two out of three original members, after splitting in 2004. They’re working on a new album, but expect to hear “Inside Out,” which went to number one on the modern rock charts in 1998.

Friday: Mark Erelli, Boccelli’s – “Delivered” is far and away the best effort of Erelli’s career. From parenthood (“Once”) to the loss of his own parents (“Man of the Family”) to the dual comfort and frustration of unchanging routine (“Hope Dies Last”), no record in 2008 better exemplified what life is like today. You owe it to yourself to hear Mark play this beautiful, soul-affirming masterpiece (solo) tonight.

Saturday: Sensible Shoes Dance Party, Canoe Club – Once a month, this downtown restaurant clears away a few tables and indulges in decibels the way a chocoholic attacks dessert. Last time around, Tim Utt and Barbara Blaisdell’s soulful band attracted a good crowd to this late start (9 PM) party, and rocked their way through familiar songs and a few choice selections from a new record due later this spring. Big fun!

Sunday: Kris Delmhorst, Armadillo’s Burritos – This singer-songwriter began her last album (“Shotgun Singer”) with stripped-down solo takes, then called in her pals, including Peter Mulvey and husband Jeffrey Foucault, to flesh them out. The results wowed critics far and wide, and led to a lot of airplay on XM’s Loft station, which is an oasis for Americana fans. Armadillo’s, located in downtown Keene, presents folk shows monthly.

Monday: Open Mike, Bentley’s – This is the perfect Monday event. It’s full of surprises, just like the start of the week. Silas & Company helm the talent night, typically broken into 15 minute segments, and welcoming anyone with a guitar and the guts to perform in front of an audience. With the bevy of open mikes area-wide, there must be plenty fitting that description.

Tuesday: Singer and Jordan, Tip Top Café – Phil Singer and Laurianne Jordan play the kind of folk music that was in vogue before Dylan went electric. They sing about trains, love gone wrong and leaders in need of schooling, all of which pair well with anything on the menu at this fine White River Junction restaurant.