Roots on the River turns “X” – Fred X

FredEaglesmith - BobSmithCreditIt began as a simple idea – invite a much-loved troubadour to town for two shows, one acoustic, another electric. Fans would hear the word and head to Bellows Falls, Vermont.

Thus, the Fred Eaglesmith Weekend was born.

Fast-forward 10 years, and the festival, now known as Roots on the River, is “an institution,” in the words of its’ founder, Charlie Hunter.

Like any self-respecting institution, the 2009 edition has a Roman number – welcome, Fred X!

“This has legs now and I’d like to see it continue indefinitely as long as Fred wants to come play,” says Ray Massucco, who took over full time production responsibilities from Charlie for last year’s show.

Well, perhaps “took over” doesn’t quite describe it.

Writes Hunter in the current program, “after the year of the Incredible Humidity and the year of the Thunderstorm That Nearly Killed Everybody and the year of the Continual Inundation That Resulted In A Lot Of Rotten Hay Being Dumped On Top Of A Lot Of Mud I was ready for the Year Of Not Doing A Festival, but Ray Massucco would have none of that, stepped in, and took it over.”

“Everyone else stepped back,” replies the modest Massucco.  “Seriously, I did not intend to run it, I just wanted to help support it to keep it going.”

His first effort was unmarred by the challenges that Hunter sometimes faced, with mostly good weather and many memorable performances.

“It was too much to give up after one year,” Ray says, “so I stayed on.”

This year’s festival kicks off Thursday, June 11 at the Bellows Falls Opera House, with “A Night of Blues in Vermont,” featuring Sonny Landreth and folksinger Chris Smither, each a headliner in their own right (Smither sold out a Chester show last February); Josh Maiocco opens.

Maiocco and Ezra Veitch are festival veterans.  The pair’s latest band, Ninja Monkey, play a free show with Spike Dogtooth at the BF Farmers’ Market Friday afternoon.

Friday evening, the music moves to the tent behind Rockingham’s Everyday Inn for the first of three performances by Fred Eaglesmith and his band, the Flying Squirrels.  Joining Fred is Junior Brown and his “guit-steel,” a one-of-a-kind hybrid of lap steel and six-string guitar.

The Roger Marin Band opens; they perform again Saturday.  Marin has appeared at every Roots festival since the first in 2000, both solo and as a member of Eaglesmith’s band (he was a Flying Squirrel for six years).

Says Massucco, “Friday night is also Junior Brown’s birthday, which should ramp up the performance level.”

The festival’s focal point is the all-day Saturday show in the Rockingham tent, which features a bevy of female talent this year.  The high estrogen level reflects a “need to balance out the Thursday, Friday and Sunday shows a little bit,” Ray says, “Besides, they are all awesomely talented and we only book the best of the best.”

The “best of the best” includes Red Molly, who regularly draw crowds to Boccelli’s in downtown Bellows Falls, and Caroline Herring, a singer/songwriter whose most recent album (“Lantana”) has drawn comparisons to Lucinda Williams.

Also appearing are the retro-country Sweetback Sisters.  “They could be the surprise hit of the festival,” says Massucco.  The Brooklyn-based band will be selling copies of “Chicken Ain’t Chicken” – officially set for release June 30th on Signature Sounds.

Newcomer Jenee Halstead, who secured an invite after wowing a Boccelli’s audience earlier this year, brings an impressive collection of character-based songs from her indie debut, “The River Grace.”

Saturday closes with sets from Hayes Carll, the Bottle Rockets and Fred Eaglesmith.

According to this year’s program, Carll’s set in 2003 garnered “the best reception of any first time performer in the nine year history of the festival.”  Most recently, Carll released “Trouble In Mind” on the Lost Highway label, home to Van Morrison, Willie Nelson and Ryan Adams.  The record features the rollicking “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart” and the hilarious (or heretical, take your pick) “She Left Me For Jesus.” The latter won the Americana Music Association’s Song of the Year award, and spawned a brilliant music video, a send-up of the “Two Timers” reality show.

The Bottle Rockets incendiary 2008 set made them an obvious choice to be Saturday’s penultimate band.  Last year, the Festus, Missouri band was asking: “What the hell is a Bellows Falls? I think they took the gig for shits and giggles,” says Ray.  “After the set and around last call, they said this was the best night on the tour.”

“This year, they called us and wanted to know if there was any chance they could come back.  I decided to move them to Saturday to rev up the late show again.  I really think Fred kicks it up a notch when there is another competent artist ahead of him,” says Massucco.

Fred’s set could extend past midnight, and fans hanging around post-show are often surprised by impromptu jam sessions in the rooms, and sometimes the parking lot, of the Everyday Inn.

Since the festival began in 2000, an acoustic show has closed things out on Sunday morning, featuring Eaglesmith and another luminous act.  Last year, Mary Gauthier did the early set; this year, it’s songsmith Jeffrey Foucault, who recently released a tasty John Prine tribute album (“Shoot the Moon Right Between the Eyes”).

Even in an economy tough enough to prod Live Nation into “fee-free Wednesdays” (with cheap seats for everyone from Kid Rock to Aerosmith), Roots on the River thrives.

Ticket prices are one reason.  They range from $25 for the single shows (Saturday’s all-day affair is $40), to $105 for all four days. There are still a few $135 deluxe preferred seating packages left.

“I’d pay double the price of admission for either Thursday or Friday’s shows,” says Massucco.   “Throw in the kid’s ticket pricing on Saturday (6-14 year olds are $10, under 5 free), student and senior pricing on all tickets and the family cap (of $100) on Saturday, and this is the best entertainment value of the summer, bar none.”

But it’s Mr. Eaglesmith, the man who gives “Fred X” its name, who makes it all work.  “His shows are at an incredible quality level right now,” says Ray, with a band that’s “exceptionally talented, tightly knit and creative, not to mention young.  I think they push Fred to new limits as the leader.”

Black Tooth Grin – Book Review

Picture 7Black Tooth Grin // The High Life, Good Times and Tragic End of “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott

By Zac Crain

Much of the general public took note of Darrell Abbott’s passing because of the bizarre circumstances of his death.  The former Pantera guitarist was murdered on stage at a Columbus, Ohio nightclub with three others, during a performance with his band Damageplan.

But to Abbott’s fans – the ones that called him “Dimebag” or simply “Dime” – the shock of his death was enormous.  One fellow musician called it  “the 9/11 of heavy metal.”

Abbott’s almost preternatural guitar talents had a lot to do with this, but it wasn’t the only reason for the success of Pantera, the band he rode to fame with his brother Vinnie, or the loss his fans felt.

“Dimebag” never stopped being a fan of the music he played.

He collected “all access” backstage passes for bands like KISS, Judas Priest and Van Halen with the fervor of a teenager –– even as he shared the stage with them. At the height of his success, he asked KISS guitarist Ace Frehley to autograph his chest.  A few hours later, he’d made the signature permanent – at a tattoo parlor.

When he died, he was buried in a “Kiss Kasket” with one of Eddie Van Halen’s guitars.

As Zac Crain’s excellent biography reveals, this fandom was never far from Abbott’s mind when he engaged his own fans; thousands would turn out for his memorial service.

They came because of a person, not a rock star.  Writes Crain, who talked to many at the gathering: “Everyone, it seemed, had shared a joke with Darrell, done a shot, something.

Abbott’s father was a country music writer and producer who never imposed his tastes on Darrell and Vinnie.  Writes Crain, “had he taught Darrell what he knew how to play rather than what he wanted to learn, Darrell’s life might have gone in a different direction.”

Instead, his father learned the notes to “Smoke on the Water” so he could teach them to his son.

There is a lot of partying in “Black Tooth Grin” – the title comes from Abbott’s favorite cocktail, a double shot of whiskey with a splash of Coke.  Anyone who came within Dime’s orbit was expected to keep up.  “If you were in the Dimebag cyclone, chances are you had to drink with him someplace,” said one fellow rocker.  If you didn’t have an AA chip, you’d better have a shot glass, said another.

Crain is bemused but seldom judgmental about Abbott’s excesses.  “Most everyone who knew him stops short of referring to his behavior in alcoholic terms,” he writes.  “No, he wasn’t an alcoholic, they say.  He was a pro.”

All of that was overshadowed when Dimebag strapped on a guitar and started playing.  “He won so many guitar contests the organizers stopped letting him enter; he became a judge before he was out of his teens,” writes Crain.  He went on to win reader’s polls “in every extant guitar-related magazine.”

Despite those accolades, Darrell Abbott “constantly extolled the virtues of other guitar players like a starstruck fan, as though he hadn’t already reached or surpassed their level.”

Crain pulls of a difficult task. While “Black Tooth Grin” is essential reading for any fan of “Dimebag” Darrell Abbott or his band, it’s not a “meatheads only” book.    It will reach anyone who’s ever heard a killer riff and thought, “God, I want to play like that.”

Local Rhythms – What Money Buys You Then and Now

Picture 9“Is it sick to love a web site?”

I read that comment while sampling the live music gems on Wolfgang’s Vault – everything from a pristine recording of Maybelle Carter in 1963 to full-length videos of modern bands like Plain White T’s and Fleet Foxes.

This week, Wolfgang’s released vintage shows from John Lennon and George Harrison, along with a 2001 Ringo Starr set.

Paul McCartney’s 1990 Washington, D.C. appearance is already on the site; all four Beatles are now represented.

I saw George’s tour when it came to San Francisco in 1974.  Let’s just say that listening to it again tempers my nostalgia.

The Seventies were a golden decade.  I bought concert tickets with a week’s allowance, and was privileged to witness many classic rock staples in their prime.

But  some of those greats weren’t exactly accommodating, often acting like they didn’t owe fans much more than simply showing up.

Due to a pre-tour illness and a primitive sound system, Harrison’s voice was a ragged mess, but that wasn’t the biggest problem.

George rolled into town determined to do what he pleased.  More than a third of the show was sitar music, and he flogged his new album relentlessly.  When he deigned to play Beatles songs he changed the words, even rearranging John Lennon’s “In My Life” as a Hare Krishna anthem.

Speaking of which, Lennon sounded almost bitter introducing “Come Together,” the only Beatles song from what would sadly be his last full-length show in 1972.  “We’ll go back in the past just once,” sneered John, who relied on “Sometime In New York City,” a record no one bought then or remembers now, for most of the night’s music.

Though Paul McCartney did much the same, Wings was easier to take. But it’s interesting that as the years wore on, and tickets got more expensive, Paul seemed more concerned about keeping the customer satisfied.

Now, the ratio of hits to self-indulgence is reversed.

AC/DC has a new album, but you won’t hear much of it on their current tour, nor will Billy Joel trot out a piano concerto when he duets with Elton John.

Bob Dylan put it well in a recent interview.

Classic rockers “started out anti-establishment, now they are in charge of the world,” Dylan said when asked about “trading on nostalgia.”

“They made perfect records, so they have to play them perfectly,” he continued. “Exactly the way people remember them.”

The sound systems are better, too.  OK, on to the here and now:

Thursday: Three Girls and Their Buddy, Green @ Shelburne Museum – Patty Griffin, Shawn Colvin and Emmylou Harris, who’ve shared many a stage and studio together, are joined  by Americana exemplar Buddy Miller.  These collaborations can be both exhilarating and frustrating, particularly if you’re a bigger fan of one musician over another (Patty Griffin – guilty as charged).

Friday: Jamie Ward, Sophie & Zeke’s – A New York piano player slash actor is joined by Nate Thompson (New Kind of Blue) for a night of standards like “Paper Moon” mixed with contemporary music from Tom Waits and Elvis Costello.  Tomorrow night, the downtown Claremont restaurant has a three-band dance party, topped by Boston’s McMahon Brothers.

Saturday:  O-Tones, WRJ American Legion – A fundraiser for the Ethiopia-based Selamta Family Project in Addis Ababa, which addresses the devastation of the AIDS pandemic, poverty and despair through support of families and communities.  The O-Tones play swing, funk and Motown.  Also on hand are DJ Spin Doctor, with John & Sandra Tomeny offering dance lessons.

Sunday: Bad Dadds, Salt Hill Pub – A special 6 PM Sunday performance by this playful area cover band to raise money and awareness for the new Kilton Public Library in West Lebanon.   Benefits like these are the only time the Pub, which will soon celebrate its sixth birthday, asks for a cover charge – $8.00.  They’ll also donate 15 percent of all sales after 5 to the library fund.

Tuesday: Singer & Jordan, Tip Top Café – Phil Singer and Laurianne Jordan just posted 10 original songs on their web site,  The “Company of Friends” album is lighthearted, old-timey and optimistic.  The barking dogs in the background are a nice touch too.  But with an enterprise subtitled “Songs of Peace, Love and Fried Dough,” it’s to be expected.

Wednesday: Vince Gill, Lowell Memorial Auditorium – Though most of the world knows him as a crooner, I consider Gill to be the world’s most underrated guitarist.  Mark Knopfler asked him to join Dire Straits – he declined, “Someone like Vince puts you in your place if you think you’re hot stuff,” Knopfler said at the time.  “He writes, sings on all the best records in Nashville …  plays guitar like a god, of course, and then can do it on a mandolin or something else!”