Local Rhythms – Back to my roots

fred“Roots on the River” begins tonight at the Bellows Falls Opera House, with a double bill featuring Sonny Landreth and Chris Smither.

In 10 years, the four-day festival has become one of Vermont’s most-loved events.

Three separate performances by Fred J. Eaglesmith and his band leave no doubt about why the long weekend of music is known far and wide as “FredFest.”

But there’s a whole lot of talent swirling around Mr. Eaglesmith.

What will be the biggest surprise for the tenth go-round, known as Fred X?  Over the years, Gandalf Murphy and the Slambovian Circus of Dreams, Chris Whitley (his final appearance), Ingrid’s Ruse, Crooked Still and Sarah Borges have all left indelible impressions on me.

That’s just a few of the names; surely there’ll be a few more this time.

Even if you can’t attend all the shows, I’ll help you keep up, with performance reviews (and, in all likelihood, a weather report or two) posted on my blog (eagletimes.com) as the festival moves forward.

I’ve also set up a Twitter feed (@localrhythms) to share real time highlights, from Thursday’s “Night of Blues in Bellows Falls” through the acoustic Meeting House show with Fred and the amazing Jeffrey Foucault on Sunday morning.

In between, I’ll share the lowdown on the great discoveries as they happen.

That said, don’t take my word for it – come to the festival.  The all-day show on Saturday behind Rockingham’s Everyday Inn is your best bet, with an entire day and night of music led by some great female performers (Jenee Halstead, Red Molly, Carolyn Herring and the Sweetback Sisters).

Complementing the ladies are Fred and his band, Roger Marin, the Bottle Rockets (I missed them last year, much to my regret) and the eagerly anticipated Hayes Carll.

Can’t commit an entire day?  The Friday night tent show features the inimitable Junior Brown and his strange and wonderful “guit-steel” hybrid axe – and of course, Fred.

The whole shebang costs about half of what you’d pay to see Billy Joel and Elton John at the Razor, and it’s a heck of a lot more intimate.

Out of all the events I cover over the course of the year, Roots is my favorite.

Fans arrive from as far away as Europe, and music continues in the parking lots (or in the case of tonight’s post-Opera House jam session at PK’s Tavern, the clubs) long after the show’s over.

Here are some other diversions:

Thursday: Open Mike, Salt hill Pub – This is the final Lebanon open session for awhile, but at the Newport ShP, Toby Moore of Yer Mother’s Onion recently began hosting a Thursday open mike night, so it’s all good.  The pub on the green celebrates six years in business June 19 with Sirsy, and the Tuohy brothers just announced plans to open a Hanover location.  Busy, busy.

Friday:  Joe Stallsmith & Heepe Gareau, Jesse’s – Two members of the fine Spare Change bluegrass combo host a new all-acoustic session, the second night of music at the Hanover restaurant in addition to the weekly open microphone hosted by Tad Davis (Thursdays).  Joe’s been making music since the days of Joe’s Waterworks, a place some old-timers are sure to remember.  Great picking and singing are sure to ensue.

Saturday: Second Wind, Orford River Jam – The ninth year for this wonderful all-acoustic festival at the Pastures Campground features the duo of Terry Ray Gould and Suzy Hastings performing “original, public domain, and/or ‘permission granted’ material” as per the festival guidelines.  The music happens every week through Labor Day, with a big chili cook-off scheduled for September 12.   This is a great way to relax in a bucolic setting.

Sunday: Brad Paisley, Meadowbrook U.S. Cellular Pavilion – When Paisley released “5th Gear” in 2007, I commented that he “could play Keith Urban under the table,” prompting a bit of outrage from Keith fans.  Last year, Paisley and Urban collaborated on “Start a Band,” the lead single from the mostly instrumental “Play” album.  I stand by my assessment of Brad’s guitar prowess.  Also appearing is Dierks Bentley, another talented picker; Jimmy Wayne opens.

Tuesday:  Chosen Vale Trumpet Seminar, Enfield Shaker Museum – The first concert of the annual gathering of musicians devoted solely to the trumpet features Ellsworth Smith Silver Medalist Kazuaki Kikumoto performing selections by Krzywicki, Torelli, Hindemith, Takemitsu and Brandt, accompanied by pianist Ayako Yoda.  Chosen Vale runs through June 28 and includes four concerts.  Master classes are also open to public observers.

Wednesday: Murphy’s Blues, Lyman Point Park Band Shell – Summer means music heads outdoors in downtown White River Junction.  This week a blues combo that functioned as the house band at the old Rynborn in Keene before it closed awhile back.   They remind me a bit of Roomful of Blues, playing traditional jump, swing and boogie, as opposed to the pyrotechnics sometimes prevalent in the genre.

Claremont Middle School Spring Concert

CMS-FullChoirSmallFollowing a week that saw the band win a gold medal in the Great East competition at Six Flags Agawam, and the chorus earn a “Superior” rating at the annual “Trills and Thrills” gathering in Lake George, the Claremont Middle School music program held its final concert of the year.

If the sixth grade band’s performance is any indication, there’s more gold in CMS’s future.  Their highlight of their set was “Symphonette for Band,” which featured individual players and sections.  They also tackled “Spania,” a piece that in years past had been played by the 7th and 8th grade combined band, according to director Seth Moore.

The chorus drew from African, bluegrass and gospel rhythms for their segment, working through the South African folk song “Singahahambayo,” the spirited “Hear That Fiddle Play” medley and Jim Papoulis’s inspirational “Can You Hear.”

The Jazz Band found a swinging, soulful groove.  Duke Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing” featured a tasty percussion break from Dan Seaman and a commanding piano solo from Julie Ahn.

Moore complimented the Jazz Band, made up of dedicated musicians from all three grade levels, for managing to learn “3 new songs a show while spending one hour a week together.”   Over the past nine months, he said, the group has been on the front page of the paper multiple times, and played with Grammy-winning trumpeter Arturo Sandoval.

“It’s been one of Jazz Band’s best years ever,” Moore concluded.

The combined 7th/8th grade band provided a preview of the upcoming Alumni Day Parade, performing War’s “Low Rider” and “25 or 6 to 4” by Chicago – two songs the band will march to on Saturday.

A rousing finale of “Phantom of the Opera” ended the band’s performance, followed by the choir’s rendition of “I Have a Dream” and “Come in From the Firefly Darkness,” featuring solos from Meghan Esdon, Alyssa Foisy and Ben Nelson.  The song won the choir an “outstanding” rating at the Lake George gathering, said Choir Director Virginia Formidoni,

Moore and Formidoni presented several at night’s end, including medals for invitees to the Southwest District Music Festival, an elite all-state band and chorus.

Moore joked, “I ran out of money buying trophies.”

Band awards:

Southwest District Music Festival Band participants:
Gabby Cutts
Julie Ahn
Abbey Rouillard

6th Most Improved: Mitchell Kelly
6th Most Outstanding: Erin Truesdell
7th Most Outstanding: Zach Bunnell
8th Most Outstanding: Sarah Porter, Abbey Rouillard
8th Most Improved: Victoria Webster

Chorus awards:

Southwest District Music Festival Chorus participants:
Victoria Webster
Samantha Perry
Alyssa Foisy
Owen Ritondo
Evan Upham

6th Most Outstanding: Elizabeth Gagnon
7th Most Improved: Jamie Carter
8th Most Improved: Samantha Perry, Megan Esdon
8th Most Outstanding: Victoria Webster, Alyssa Foisy

8th Grade Most Outstanding Band and Chorus: Julie Ahn

Hands on with Palm Pre

palm-pre-1In my hand, the Palm Pre feels like a river-smoothed stone.  There’s not a rough edge anywhere on the device.  With a small on/off button next to a ringer/vibrate switch at the top right, and a two-button volume control on the left, it’s the picture of minimalism.

A round selection button is the only other thing disturbing the Pre’s marble-like surface, with the screen seeming to disappear into blackness when turned off.

It looks like a chunk of Darth Vader’s helmet, and I mean that in a good way.

Closed, it measures four inches high by two and a quarter across.  With the keyboard slid open, the Pre has a gentle curve.  Because it’s a multitasking device, this helps when sending an email during a phone call.

Switching between modes – text to email to call, for example, is a breeze.

The user interface is very intuitive, and I was able to set up my Google, Facebook, Twitter and personal email accounts in minutes. The first Google import was a bit messy, so I used my desktop computer to clean things up on the web, and within minutes, synched my changes to the Pre.

Web OS uses a playing card metaphor for its desktop. I had the basic moves memorized quickly:   Open an application, a card fills the screen; opening a second minimizes the first.  To close an application, grab the minimized card and sweep it upwards to the top of the screen.  To move between applications, sweep cards to the right or left.

There’s a gesture bar located between the selection button and screen, which allows for moving around inside an application.  I found the whole experience very … Apple-like.

Not a surprise when considering the Pre’s lineage.

But the Pre isn’t an iPhone wannabe – even if Palm (and Sprint) would love Apple’s market share, and the UI suggests it (how Palm avoided a lawsuit for clearly lifting the iPhone’s three-finger “multi-touch” feature is a mystery).

Of course, talking about the Pre without mentioning the iPhone is sort of like discussing the Dixie Chicks without mentioning George W. Bush.

But it’s Research In Motion, makers of the Blackberry smart phone, who ought to be most worried about the Palm Pre, not Apple.  I’ve never owned one, but the moment the Pre began throbbing to signal each incoming email and text message, I knew why people call it a “Crack-berry” – it’s addictive.

But the Palm Pre is also a smart phone for people who need a Blackberry, but want an iPhone.  The Pre’s “App Catalog” store is small, but growing, and it’s filled with stuff for grown-ups like
LinkedIn, the New York Times and Intuit’s GoPayment, a mobile credit card processing app just released Wednesday.

There’s music, too – tight integration with Amazon, and plug-in compatibility with iTunes on Macs and PCs.

But the best thing about the Pre is how it organizes disparate information.  I was amazed at how it gathered the threads of one of my contacts – email address and phone number from Facebook, home phone and a second email number from Google, instant message account from
AIM, Twitter account – into a single view – and sent a picture of the contact’s choosing as well.

So while I can’t yet play Labyrinth or re-create the sounds of flatulence of my Palm Pre, it gets a lot of important stuff done.

Definitely worth a long wait in line.

Pre flight – getting my Palm Pre

Picture 1There’s a good reason why I was sitting in front of Best Buy at 6 AM last Saturday morning, watching a street sweeper noisily brush the pavement, waiting for the doors to open in four hours.

The only Palm Pre within 70 miles was inside, and I was determined to make it mine.

Let’s back up a bit.

Within days of upgrading my Sprint phone two years ago, I had buyer’s remorse.  The new HTC Mogul was sexy, with a sliding keyboard, landscape view web pages and GPS.  But sometimes I missed my old Palm Treo.

Sure, the stub antennaed device was a bit dowdy, and boxy as a Volvo, but in hindsight it was more reliable than the Windows Mobile device that replaced it.  The afflicted Mogul was given to sporadic battery losses and system lockups.

Two years later, I was due for a trade-in and ripe to be won back.

When Palm unveiled the Pre in January, it pulled at my heartstrings like an old lover who’d spent two years at the gym, emerging with trim, sleek lines.

An engineering team led by ex-Apple iPod honcho Jon Rubenstein built the Palm Pre.  It features a gesture-driven touch screen (similar enough to Apple’s to fuel lawsuit speculation), a new multitasking operating system called WebOS, and something the iPhone doesn’t have – a sliding keyboard.

As the June 6 launch approached, I hung on every YouTube video, added the Everything Pre blog to my Twitter feed, and tried every trick I could muster to get an early hands-on demo, to no avail.

I soon learned that winning the object of my desire would take more than ordinary efforts.  Sprint CEO Dan Hesse warned of shortages, and when I asked about local availability of the device, company spokesman told me “inventory questions are proprietary.”

Late last week, I found out why.   Best Buy’s allocation, according to a leaked company document, was a paltry 4,200 units – for the entire chain.   My local store, it turned out, received just one.

Mine.

After signing the paperwork and swiping my MasterCard, I left with my new electronic jewel.  Was it worth the wait?

In a word, yes.

Tomorrow: Hands on with the Palm Pre.

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.”