Local Rhythms – Mad Beach Band brings it back home

Picture 1If you were looking for the face of Sunapee/Newport music, it would probably be Pete Merrigan.  As the saying goes, he’s been on the scene for as long as we’ve had one.

When opening a dry cleaner, tacking a dollar bill to the wall makes it official.  If it’s a bar or restaurant, booking Pete Merrigan achieves the same validating effect.  He’s played everywhere.

When I started coming here to do weekend radio in 1980, one of the first things I spotted in the M106 studio was a 45 by the Mad Beach Band.  The Claremont station was officially playing “Champagne Ladies,” but I became partial to the B side, a slice of countrified fun called “Sweet Potato Pie.”

I played it on my shows and didn’t get fired – times were different then.

When the Mad Beach Band performed at the Newport Opera House in 1981, I met my future wife – 28 years later, we’re still together.  I didn’t meet Pete Merrigan until 2004, and one of the things I remember from that night was two patrons thanking him for his song selections, swearing it had gotten them dates.

Maybe he just has that effect on people.

The original Mad Beach Band got together in late 1970’s Florida, a meeting of the musical minds between Jimmy Buffett sideman Harry Dailey, Merrigan and his musical partner Pete Shackett, and harp player T.C. Carr.  When head Parrot Buffett  stopped by some of their shows to jam, they became something of a sensation down south.

Though the band members eventually went their separate ways (sadly, Dailey died in 2003), they’ve stayed friendly, and in 2008 they reunited for a show in Madeira Beach, Florida.  On Saturday, August 1, the reunion heads north to the Newport Opera House.

Tonight (Thursday, July 30) Pete helps open the new backyard “clam shack” addition at Casa del Sol in Ascutney.  Most of the reunion band – Carr, Lenny Austin, Dave Williamson, Vinnie Seplesky and Bryan Austin – are expected to stop by.

Friday is rehearsal night.  Afterward, the band will likely repair to Newport’s Salt hill, run by Joe Tuohy.  Joe’s parents operated the Shanty in Sunapee, where Pete Merrigan played in his early days.  Joe’s brother Josh, who runs the Lebanon Salt hill, recalls falling asleep on a pile of down jackets there once while Pete played “Dust on the Saddle.”

On Sunday, Pete will be back at the original site of the Shanty, which is now Digby’s, performing his regular deck show.

A few things remain constant – one of them is Pete Merrigan.

Another constant is lots of things to do in our lovely little neck of the woods, including:

Thursday: Acoustic Coalition South, Hartness House – Here’s something new. An acoustic open mike series that’s been running for years in Woodstock and Quechee comes to Springfield, Vermont, hosted by Mark Koch.  The Hartness House is a beautiful old mansion with tons of charm, which I’m sure will blend very well with the tune-swapping sure to occur.

Friday: Roadhouse, Imperial Garden – A good-time, fun rock and roll band who does a kick-ass (or should I say KA?) version of Foghat’s “I Just Wanna Make Love to You” which is almost good enough to make me forget Cold Blood’s horn drenched take on the R&B classic.  Mainly because Lisa Miller can belt it out.

Saturday: Adam McMahon, Sophie & Zeke’s – This guy’s got a serious touch on the guitar. whether playing acoustically or on a Stratocaster, which he’ll probably be using tonight.  It’s a dance party, after all.  Adam specializes in blues, but he’s got more tricks than that up his sleeve.

Sunday: Amy Gallatin & Stillwaters, Sunapee Mountain – The annual League of New Hampshire Craftsmen fair begins Saturday, and today’s musical guest, at 1, 3 and 5 PM, is a very talented bluegrass player with an equally enjoyable band.  You’d think in this day and age they’d change the orgnization’s name to “Craftspersons”?  Oh, well.

Monday: Second Wind, Digby’s – Terry Ray Gould is just as ubiquitous as Pete Merrigan these days, playing Farmer’s Markets, cafes (farewell, Green Acres!) and open mikes like this one, which features a prize at the end of the night and a friendly vibe.

Tuesday: Gerry Grimo, Elixir – The leader of the East Bay Jazz Ensemble plays the newly revived small plate club, which features music five nights a week.  White River Junction is quite the destination, with three great music venues, the nutty Main Street Museum, and the renowned Northern Stage theater program.

Wednesday: Arthur James, Salt hill Pub – Blues night on the green, with a guitar man who’s long been a fixture at the Newport ShP location.  Each Wednesday welcomes a different band, check the club’s web site for details.

Local Rhythms – It’s all here

T-32CompassDo you want to know a secret? It’s all here.

When I began writing about the local music scene five years ago, a part of me wondered if I could even find seven days of nightlife every week.

I half expected to end up talking about using the Internet to hear bands who’d never come near my little town, or high definition concerts on cable and satellite television that were almost better than the real thing.

Mea culpa.

Turned out, the same technology that closed distances and made everything local also connected me to a wealth of creative energy emanating from Claremont, Newport, Springfield, Windsor, Charlestown and points beyond.

Early on, I discovered metal mavericks Hexerei and progressive-rockers (now power trio) Spectris through their web sites. Ditto with Oshe, an amazing jazz-fusion quartet that once regularly gigged in the area (including a few wild drum circles in Unity).

MySpace delivered country from Little Memphis and High Ground, Sunapee regulars Roxanne and the Voodoo Rockers playing blues, and good-time singer/guitarists – Pete Merrigan, Jesse Peters and Terry Gould, to name just a few.

When I headed out the door, things got even better. There’s an open mike literally every night somewhere close by, and a battle of the bands every quarter. From late May through early October, music festivals of every stripe compete for my attention.

Summers are about bandstands, gazebos and town common shows.

Don’t forget farmer’s markets, which usually deliver music with their localvore treats.

Of course, if I’m hungry for big-name talent, it’s not far to drive (Meadowbrook, anyone?).

The many area venues presenting talent on a regular basis prove the axiom that, even though the record business is on the ropes, music is doing fine.

The Claremont Opera House is a treasure. Anyone in the packed houses for the recent Natalie MacMaster and Chuck Wicks shows would agree.

Over at the Newport Opera House, a local band like Last Kid Picked can still sell the place out. Speaking of which, if you haven’t grabbed tickets for the Mad Beach Band’s upcoming reunion show there – don’t wait.

Throughout the area, different places have found a sweet spot.

Sophie and Zeke’s has jazz, and you can count on Salt hill Pub for Irish music every St. Patrick’s Day. Imperial Gardens is the place for hard rock lovers, and newcomer Silver Fern is a reliable stop for singer-songwriters on Saturdays.

Casa del Sol does roots music, and Digby’s on the Deck is the place to enjoy a sunny Sunday afternoon.

There’s so much more – who has time for television?

Thursday: Jason Cann, Harpoon Brewery – This singer/songwriter (who also fronts the rock trio Wherehouse) is a true local treasure. When I first saw him at the old Claremont Bistro Nouveau, his easygoing voice and manner suggested an upcountry Kenny Loggins. After much prodding, Jason’s recorded and posted a few songs on his web site – my favorite is “I Want”.

Friday: Stonewall, Imperial Gardens – After what seemed like forever, Stonewall completed their “What If” CD last year. A few weeks ago, they had the (at the time unknown) honor of playing the final show at Charlestown’s Heritage Tavern, a sort of second home to them. These days, Imperial is the most welcoming venue for hard rock, metal, and other high-energy music.

Saturday: Planet Zydeco, Boccelli’s – A few miles beyond Charlestown lies the musical oasis of Bellows Falls. It’s been the cause of more than a few of my mid-week trips to the gas station. Boccelli’s, the quaint restaurant/auction house that picked up the thread when the Windham closed, is usually the reason why. Tonight, a Putney band with a Louisiana heart performs.

Sunday: Tammy Jackson Band, Newport Common – I get more than my fair share of grief for being a country music fan. It’s funny the amount of prejudice people can exhibit when they’re calling someone a redneck. Anyway, Tammy and her husband Cliff Clegg are a Sunapee institution, and their outdoor Newport shows are always a treat. Hope the weather cooperates!

Monday: Second Wind, Digby’s – There’s a moveable feast of area open mike nights, and this one is by all reports one of the best. Partly that’s because someone wins a prize at night’s end, but mostly it’s due to all-around good guy Terry Gould and his musical sidekick Suzi Hastings, who host the weekly event.

Tuesday: Singer & Jordan, Tip Top Café – A quick trip up Interstate 91 takes you to White River Junction, and a quirky arts scene that includes punk rock shows at Main Street Museum (which is like stepping into a Joseph Cornell diorama), jazz at Elixir Restaurant, and “lower case” folk music at this corner café. Philip Singer’s music has an early Sixties Bleecker Street vibe.

Wednesday: Upper Valley Community Band, Flanders Stage – One of the region’s special qualities is its connectedness. As an expatriate of ever-changing California, I especially appreciate this, and nothing quite exemplifies it like the many homespun musical entities that populate the region. Tonight 40 or 50 friends, directed by Carole Blake, play big band favorites.

Jackson Browne does his thing @ Meadowbrook

Picture 2For a guy who named his latest album “Time the Conqueror,” Jackson Browne has held up well.   Of course, the grey beard he sported on that record’s cover is shaved, and the white highlights of his straight pageboy haircut re-colored.  So perhaps time has conquered the California man-child, but as Browne played on a warm night to a near-sold out house at Meadowbrook U.S. Cellular Pavilion, he looked limber and sounded sharp.

After several years of touring alone in support of “Solo Acoustic Volumes 1 & 2” greatest hits collections, Browne’s out with a band this time, and a hard rocking attitude.  There was nary a wooden guitar in sight. Though his two-hour set relied on a lot of material from the latter part of his career, the crowd didn’t seem to mind.  In fact, the biggest ovation of the night came at the end of “About My Imagination” from the 2001 release, “The Naked Ride Home,” which showcased Chavonne Morris and Alethea Mills, two young vocalists Browne found in a South Los Angeles prep school.

Other highlights included “Lives In the Balance,” reworked with a new verse (sung by Morris), “The Pretender,” the rarely heard “Late Show” (an underappreciated gem from “Late for the Sky”), a spare “Jamaica Say You Will” and the encore, Browne’s cover of Steven Van Zandt’s “I Am A Patriot.”

It’s likely that many in attendance were unfamiliar with “I’ll Do Anything” and some of the other obscure nuggets Browne chose, not to mention the four songs he played from “Time The Conqueror” – a good record that, unfortunately, can only be heard on a few satellite radio stations.

The encore incorporated an Isley Brothers’ funk classic into the middle portion, which turned out to be a perfect representation of Browne’s apparent mood.  ‘It’s your thing/do what you wanna do,” he sang, and did just that.  He gently complained mid-set that the set list he chose never seemed to please everyone. So he chose to please himself.  Fortunately, the audience was with him for most of the ride.

Local Rhythms – Greenerpalooza gets Browne

Picture 23Most people look at the roofline of Meadowbrook U.S. Cellular Pavilion and see the Lakes Region’s premier live music venue. Chris Lockwood envisions a green energy future.

Its slope and location are perfect for photovoltaic panels. “We have the potential to be New Hampshire’s largest producer of solar power,” says Lockwood, the venue’s Marketing Director.

Chris is a passionate advocate for the Meadowbrook’s environmental initiatives.  “When I came here out of college, the first thing I thought was ‘we have to make this place green,” he said.

To that end, he’s been a driving force behind the “Greenerpalooza” showcase. The second annual event, co-sponsored by Ocean Bank, PSNH and the NH Business Resource Center, happens Thursday, July 16 in conjunction with Jackson Browne’s appearance there.

Fans can wander around an “eco-village” in the Meadowbrook midway and visit 25 vendors from around the state.  Many environmentally responsible products and services will be on display, including alternative energy, smart home design, electric cars and earth-friendly cosmetics.

“Greenerpalooza” is the public relations part of the venue’s ongoing commitment “to have the least amount of negative impact on our environment.”

Meadowbrook’s tangible steps to reduce its carbon footprint are impressive.  They include increased recycling, use of products made with recycled materials and on-site bio-diesel, used for on-stage production and tour bus refueling.

At last year’s event, the headliner lent their name – but not much more, This time around, Jackson Browne is “really into” the effort, says Lockwood.

The singer-songwriter’s commitment to alternative energy and the environment is well known.  Browne founded Musicians United for Safe Energy (MUSE) with Bonnie Raitt, John Hall and Graham Nash, and once was arrested for chaining himself to the entrance of a nuclear power plant (Diablo Canyon, in 1981).

These days, Browne drives a hybrid car, and lives “off the grid” on a Southern California ranch with a wind turbine, solar electricity and other energy-saving gadgetry.  In 2007, the home was the subject of Green Planet’s “Living With Ed” documentary show.

Browne welcomed Meadowbrook’s offer to tap into their bio-diesel generator to power his sound.  He’ll also employ an energy-efficient LED lighting system for his show.

Lockwood also hopes the rocker will urge his audience to check out the Greenerpalooza showcase, and learn how to take earth-friendly steps in their own lives.

Around the time Jackson Browne was starting MUSE, I worked on a solar energy awareness project called “Sun Day,” dreaming of a rock show powered by alternative energy.

It’s certainly a pleasure to see that dream become a reality – right in my own backyard.

Speaking of which, here are some other local entertainment options, at a few of my favorite places:

Wednesday: Second Wind, Green Acres – A wine tasting at a this Claremont store that’s been through a few changes since its opening.  There are more places to sit, a bigger selection of bottles of the shelf and great prepared food.   Their barista makes the best latte in town.  Add to that the talented duo of Terry Gould and Suzy Hastings, better known as Second Wind, and you have the makings for a lovely evening.

Thursday:  Pete Merrigan, Bistro Nouveau – I met my bride-to-be at a Newport Opera House performance by Merrigan’s Mad Beach Band. 28 years later, I can say that turned out OK.  So it’s good to know Pete and the band are planning a reunion show at the same venue on August 31.  Meanwhile, Pete’s solo appearances are always a treat, and since he moved back from Florida, something you can do year-round.

Friday: Billy Rosen Quartet, Sophie & Zeke’s – One of the area’s finest jazz combos returns to downtown Claremont.  Rosen has a delicate touch on the guitar, reminiscent of Wes Montgomery, Kenny Burrell and Pat Metheny.  He personifies “smooth,” S&Z’s Brown Block location never ceases to amaze me.  It’s roomy yet intimate, and the new, expanded bar is always buzzing with activity.

Saturday: Green River Festival (Greenfield, MA) – If you can only make one music festival this summer, this is a good choice – particularly considering the first day (Friday, 5 PM start) features performances from every artist on the coolest indie label anywhere, Signature Sounds.  Winterpills, Rani Arbo, Eilen Jewell and Richard Shindell all stop by, and on Saturday, Michael Franti, Kathleen Edwards and 10 others perform, including Steve Earle’s son Justin Townes.

Sunday: Celia Sings Sinatra, Canoe Club – This downtown Hanover restaurant has great food, an inventive beer list and interesting drinks.  But none of that matters to me as much as Canoe Cub’s commitment to live music, 363 days a year.  Nights like this one with Celia are particularly special – he’s a dead ringer for the Chairman of the Board, and a lot of fun to boot.

Monday: Freshlyground, Iron Horse – From Capetown, South Africa to Northampton, Massachusetts, this band’s musical palette suggests “Graceland” era Paul Simon wed to Macy Gray’s soulfulness.  Quirky stuff – on “Pot Belly” (streaming on their MySpace page), lead singer Zolani Mahola croons, “you got fat thighs, flabby arms, but your pot belly still gives good loving.”

Tuesday: Irish Sessions, Salt hill Pub – An Upper Valley treasure that’s gone in 5 years from treat to institution to (dare I say it?) franchise.  Look for a third Salt hill opening in Hanover right around Homecoming in October. Just like the Newport and Lebanon locations, there will be music.  About tonight: if you haven’t stopped in after work (or looking for work – times are hard) to check out this circle of scintillating sound, you’re really missing out.

Same old story – publisher preoccupied by paper

Bran HambricA few months ago, “The Last Tycoon,”  T.J. Stiles’ biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt, received several withering reviews on Amazon.com.  Most of the critics hadn’t even read it.  They were owners of Amazon’s ridiculously successful Kindle digital reader.  Their enmity stemmed from the book’s high price in digital format – well north of the typical $9.99 for most titles.

Ultimately, the publisher reduced “The Last Tycoon” to $9.99, and presumably the reviews improved.

Apparently,  Sourcebooks, Inc. didn’t get the word, or worse, believe they can swim against the digital tide.  After all, the music business stuck to its guns, and CD sales are doing so well.  Why not the publishing business?

Oh, wait, iTunes is kicking everyone’s butt.  Nevermind.

Sourcebooks won’t be releasing their upc0ming Harry Potter wannabe,  “Bran Hambric: The Fairfield Curse,” by Kaleb Nation, in digital form – at least not initially.  Here’s why:

“It doesn’t make sense for a new book to be valued at $9.99,” said Dominique Raccah, CEO of Sourcebooks, which issues 250 to 300 new titles annually. “The argument is that the cheaper the book is, the more people will buy it. But hardcover books have an audience, and we shouldn’t cannibalize it.” An e-book for “Bran Hambric” will become available in the spring, she said.

That’s close to the same logic employed by the music business, but Trident Media Group’s Robert Gottleib takes it a step further:

“It’s no different than releasing a DVD on the same day that a new movie is released in the movie theaters,” he said. “Why would you do that?”

Considering the post-theater revenue of most movies, a better question might be why wouldn’t you do that?  Since the advent of the VCR, personal ownership of films has skyrocketed.  In the mid-80’s, when the standard price for a cassette dropped to a reasonable level, sales jumped.  It’s easy to forget that once upon a time it cost 69 bucks to buy a rental copy of “Foul Play” for your own use.

I’ve had a Kindle since Christmas, and since that time my reading budget hasn’t really changed. I do have more to choose from, so publishers are making less per title from me.  But that’s not a bad thing when you consider that I’m finding new authors, broadening my horizons.

Kaleb Nation is a first-time novelist.  How can limiting the availability of his work help his career – especially among the hardcore readers who own a Kindle?

Going Digital

ripA little over five years ago, when Local Rhythms appeared in the Claremont Eagle Times for the first time, I received no money for my work.  The local music scene needed a voice to tell its story, and whether I was paid seemed less important than using my local paper to make that happen.

Now that paper – along with two other excellent publications – has ceased publication after almost 100 years. I shudder to think what a community like Claremont will do without reports of its daily life. Who will tell Claremont’s story?

For that matter, who will tell Newport’s, Charlestown’s, Unity’s, Springfield’s?

A local newspaper is like a community center, a park or a public swimming pool.  Shutting it down ends more than the life of a business.  I read publisher Harvey Hill’s memo claiming “we did our best to continue operations” and can’t help but doubt his words.  I’d love to see some tangible proof of incremental steps taken to keep the paper alive – I can detect very little.

Harvey Hill is shutting down a business – a community is losing far more than that.

For my part, I will continue to write about the local music scene, whether I’m paid or unpaid.

Though I’ve been watching the Internet long enough to know that there’s enterprise in the digital world.  Daily traffic on this web site has grown tenfold since it began.

See you in the ether – or Salt hill Pub, Imperial Gardens, Boccelli’s, Canoe Club, Sophie & Zeke’s, Common Man, Digby’s, Anchorage, Meadowbrook…….

Local Rhythms – Every Wednesday I Have the Blues @ ShP

Picture 19
Johnny Bishop Opens ShP Blues Series 7/15/2009

One of my favorite topics is “Desert Island Discs.”  What are the 10 records I’d insist on having if I could have no others?

The list is always changing, but what’s constant is diversity.

This week includes “Quadrophenia,” Patty Griffin’s “1,000 Kisses,” the second Tom Petty album  and “Diana Krall Live in Paris.”

Oh, yeah, and Nickel Creek’s “This Side” – I love to mix it up.

To extend the metaphor, if I were forced to name a night club using the same criteria – you know, there can only be one – it would likely be Salt hill Pub in Lebanon.  The reason? Variety

Just about every night features a different style of music to enjoy, and it’s the kind of stuff that might make it into my endlessly evolving magic list.  Fridays and Saturdays in particular are routinely days of discovery at the pub on the Green.

I’ve lost count of the bands I’ve grown to love after seeing them for the first time courtesy of music maven and Pub proprietor Josh Tuohy.

Josh never gets in a rut, either.  Thursday, which in the past had both a hosted open mike and a jam session, is quiet for the moment.  The Tuesday Irish Sessions continue, but even they took a breather for a few weeks.

I’m glad they’re back, because this year’s been stellar, as anyone fortunate enough to have been in the house for the Dublin City Ramblers post-Opera House jam can attest.

The latest innovation begins next Wednesday, with the return of the Summer Blues Series.  First up is harmonica hero Johnny Bishop.

The series is sponsored by Pabst Blue Ribbon, and runs through early October.  Upcoming performers include:

• Jim Ruffing & Mike Benoit, known for their work in Dog Dayz

• The Elmores – Ted Mortimer, Bobby Gagnier and Brian Kennel

• Arthur James, who ran Blues Thursdays at ShP Newport

• Charlie Hilbert, an ineffably natural bluesman

• Juke Joynt, one of Dave Clark’s many musical projects.

October 7, they’ll all gather for a big finale night jam session.  Between now and then there should be plenty of cross-pollination, according to Josh.

That means folks will be sitting in, so expect some nice surprises.

There’s nothing like a good night of blues to get my Mojo working.  Did I mention that my Desert Island Disc list always includes some Clapton, B.B, King, John Mayall or Stevie Ray Vaughn?

Sho’ nuf.

What else is happening?

Thursday:  Steve Forbert, Colburn Park – After having a big hit with “Romeo’s Tune” in the late 70’s, this singer-songwriter experienced a music industry nightmare in 1984, with an album held hostage and a recording career stalled for years.  Now he makes and distributes his own material, plays solo, and is about as genial a guy as you’d ever hope to meet.   Good on you, Steve!  This is a free show.

Friday: Basin Bluegrass Festival, Brandon (VT) – Just a few miles north of Rutland, three days of pickin’ and grinnin’ kicks off, featuring some of the top names in the genre.  Performers include Blistered Fingers, the Pinehill Ramblers, Crossover, Lorraine Jordan, Smokey Greene and Dave Nichols’ band Spare Change,  Plus, there’s that festival staple – workshops for guitar, mandolin and fiddle.  So bring yours!

Saturday: Music in the Meadow, Chester (VT) – Every year since 2003, Pat Budnick has held a fundraiser for breast cancer research at her charming little “Motel in the Meadow”.  She chose the Susan G. Komen charity because of its local focus. 75 percent of all money raised stays in Vermont.  This year’s event runs all weekend, and features Tom Hitchcock, the Stockwell Brothers, GB 101 and more.

Sunday: Destiny, Newport Common – I don’t know much about this band, but I do know the Newport Common is a fun place to see a live show.  Destiny advertises itself as a family band – whether that means they’re all related, or that certain AC/DC covers are off-limits remains to be known.  I do hope the weather cooperates.  When did New Hampshire turn into the Pacific Northwest, anyway?

Tuesday: QQQ, Moore Theatre – The folks behind this year’s “Music Box at the Moore” are aiming for a NYC club vibe, so who better to open the series than QQQ, who record for “New Amsterdam” records?  The viola-violin-guitar-drums outfit combines the threads of many influences – Eurofolk, progressive rock and Appalachian Americana are a few, but as Time Out New York says, “there’s no shorthand term for what QQQ is up to.”

Wednesday: Skellig, South Strafford Unitarian Church – Traditional music featuring fiddle, guitar, flute, accordion and vocals continues this weekly series of music.  Skellig joins members of a few different bands together to perform a mix of European-inspired folk, with an emphasis on Celtic rhythms.  Go to www.stafforduuchurch.org for more information on this excellent series, which continues through August 19th.

Vienna Teng talks about “Inland Territory”

What inspired you to get into music?

The shortest answer is that it’s the thing I felt like I was most useful for.  The whole time I was trying to figure out what to do for a living, as a career or job, I was always thinking what could I do that I do pretty well that is kind of unique, and I was interested in medicine and I realized there were so many people who wanted to be doctors that were better at that than I was, and then software engineering was fun, but it was not meant to be.  So I always loved playing music and didn’t think I’d have to call it a job, but I realized more and more well that this is something I really want to do and I’m naturally inclined to do, and it seems to bring some kind of joy or satisfaction to other people.

Do you remember a spark, hearing a record and thinking, “I want to do that”?

That’s a good question.  I think when I started studying classical music I wanted to be a composer more than anything. I thought it was so cool to be able to construct all these pieces in which you had these musicians playing that would create something bigger than themselves.  I really liked the idea of being the person who wrote that, and I haven’t quite got there yet.  Somewhere along the way I thought let me start on a smaller scale then, let me write some songs for me to sing and accompany myself on piano and that’s kind of still what I’m up to.

You made a very well received record with Larry Klein, and I heard you had a large role in directing that.  This time Alex Wong is producing and it seems like you’re even more ambitious in terms of the landscapes of sound you’re building.  You wrote in your journal that you write songs differently now, not melody and chorus, and now you’re leaving space in the songs.

Ambitious is a good term.  Dreaming through the Noise was a very particular experience.  I basically started writing these songs and working with Rounder, and I wanted to work with a producer who I’d never been able to work with before.  So I got connected with Larry and we seemed to be of the same mind, philosophically.  I got very interested in working with him.  Basically that process was trusting what he imagined for it.  When we got together the first time he said the minute I heard your songs I knew what I would want to do with it.  So it was basically like being a scriptwriter and handing the script over to the director and saying let me see what happens with it.  I was involved, but a lot of it was on an observational level, just saying oh is that what he’s gonna do, I hadn’t thought about that.  I watched him bring performances out of musicians, and who he decided to call for things.

So with this record I felt like I wanted to get an education as much as anything.  I wanted to produce it myself at first.  The more I thought about it the more I thought that’s gonna end badly.

Sort of like acting and directing at the same time?

Yeah, I’m gonna learn a lot but the resulting album may not be very good.  We might have to do things over.  It’s better if I have someone who knows what they’re doing in the process with me.  So I asked Alex to work with me because we’d been touring together at that point, and I’d always respected his production work and songwriting.  I thought well maybe if the two of us work together and he lets me get in the way sometimes and try stuff out that will be kind of my way of learning more about the production process.  That was kind of how it was like, the two of us would sit around and imagine this stuff and I would handle part of the production, and he’d do the rest.  It was about 70/30 at the end, but I ended up doing a lot of it.  Which was really fun.

You got to indulge the composer side, doing all the horn charts?

I did some of the arrangements, yeah.  I ran it by him a whole lot (laughs). There was one song I felt I mostly produced (“Kansas”).  I decided what the instrumentation would be and what the horn parts were going to be and used Wurlitzer piano and upright piano, and did overdubs.

I realized I didn’t answer part of your question.  When   I was writing the songs I was trying to be more imaginative and hear production possibilities in the songwriting, to think of it more from beginning to end.  The result was that I wrote some songs that were just impossible to play on the piano.  Sometimes when I’m on tour solo people will shout out a song and I’ll say I don’t know if I can play that just now.  It’s not going to come out right.

On “St. Stephen’s Cross”:

There’s actually no church there called St. Stephen’s Cross, so it’s not factually based.  I was trying to imagine two people being there for some moment in world history, and how personal narrative gets interwoven with larger political events.  That’s what was on my mind.

Some questions about the new record … It seems like you approached this with more of a world view than anything you’ve ever done.  Is that a correct assessment?

Yeah, I think … I always write from what I’m feeling at the time.  When I was younger I wrote from a personal diarist point of view because when you’re 19 you’re thinking about the guy you have a crush on.  Partly because of the move to New York, it became more submerged in current events.  I did a lot more reading of the news and following along, and getting involved.  It was a lot more on my mind.  So songs like Radio I wanted to put myself in that situation even though I’ve led a very sheltered, comfortable life.  There are people who live lives I can’t even imagine, and if I were to try to superimpose that on my own life, what would that look like?  It did get pretty dark sometimes. (laughs) But I feel like overall the album is meant … it’s sort of a composition of gratitude.  Because in imagining these things, I realized how many things have happened to make the life that I have possible.  Like in Grandmother Song, my grandmother is talking about her own life, and how she struggled, and how much she was denied, it made me think about how much freedom I have, and how many people had to pay for that along the way for me to have that.  And that also gives me a certain responsibility to be aware of the people who are still denied a lot, and what I can do about that.

“you’ve got to do this for all of us”?

Yeah, so there’s a lot of posing of questions, like if you have this kind of ultimate freedom what kind of responsibility do you have?

There’s a line in St. Stephen’s Cross that seemed to sum up the spirit of the record for me, when you talked about “a warning of what could be lost”.

Musically you’ve gone in a lot of directions.  You’re compared to Joni Mitchell.  I’ll make a comparison that’s less a musical one than artistic evolution.  This seems like your Hejira, where your earlier records were your Song for a Seagull or For the Roses.  Do you look at your last record with an eye towards being different?

I think it’s partly that.  It’s something less deliberate.  When I make an album, I’m determined not to make that album again.  Just to keep myself interested basically.  I think if I made another album just like the last one, I’d think what have I done with myself for the past couple of years.  So I’m always trying to push myself further in a lot of ways.  With a lot of the songs, I think I deliberately sat down and said let me try and come up with something that I haven’t come up with before.  Or let me try and play something that’s difficult for me to play, or things I have to practice or research.  It’s definltiely my way of staying engaged with the process of writing.

You’ve said that the lyrics are the hardest thing, but it sounds like you made the music a little more difficult this time around.

Yeah, I was trying to make the music match the difficulty of the lyrics.  There’s definitely some piano parts that are hard to pull off and some grooves that are tricky for me, and lot of songs … there are some songs where the words come really fasts so vocally it took some practice.

Which ones?

Grandmother Song took awhile for me to get the hang of, and Stray Italian Greyhoung, both the piano and vocals and the chorus, the words go by so fast, I definitely had to practice it a few times.

I love your analogies, likening a troubled romance to a rescue dog.

(Laughs)  I think some of that came from reading my favorite lyrics from other writers and realizing that sometimes a succinct metaphor was the most powerful for me.  No particular ones are coming to mind, but Leonard Cohen uses them all the time, and Paul Simon will evoke passing trains or scatterlings in orphanages, the sound of cattle in the marketplace. With just a short phrase, you get the full image of the connotation, the whole mood.  I ended up trying to use those a lot.

You talk about the boy in the bubble and I can see a line in radio about spider web windows and bloodstained pagodas.

To move to a different subject, I find it interesting how you engage your audience.  You are revealing your artistic process as it goes on.  Did you make a conscious decision to do that?  Does it help the process?

What do you mean by that?

Well, as new songs are being written, you’re posting lyrics on talking about them in your online journals.  Many artists take the opposite approach – lock themselves up and come out with a finished product.  They don’t share in the process of evolution.

I share whatever I’m comfortable sharing. I wouldn’t share half finished songs. But I do like the idea of writing about the process, because it’s useful for me to remember what it was like to come up with something.  There are times when I write songs and I’m struggling and it becomes a psychological problem.  Maybe I can’t write, I don’t know how to do this, and I’ll look back at a journal and remember oh, yeah, it was this hard last time.  So it’s useful to remember.

With something like Twitter, I laughed when that came out, but then I realized it was cool to send just very brief updates about what you’re up to. Sometimes we’d hit a wall in the studio and I’d say well, I’m feeling frustrated now, so I’ll write about that so people know the ups and downs of how it happens.

Was the dark mood of Inland Territory influenced by New York City (Vienna Teng’s new hometown)?

I think so.  I think New York influenced this album in a pretty profound way, in pretty much every way.  Musically, it’s very much a “what happened when I went to New York” album – topically, very much so.  It’s interesting, I think as I go, I get more bright and more dark at the same time in terms of what I talk about.  It is actually my most hopeful album in a lot of ways, but it’s also one of the most dark and depressing ones.  They kind of go together in a lot of ways.  I think the extremes of New York influenced that a lot.

There’s a production touch where you use vinyl record noise as percussion –

That was all Alex.  That was one of those really cool conversations we had where we were talking about.  One thing I love about Alex Wong is that whenever he’s thinking about production, he always comes at it from a very clever kind of innovative point of view, but it’s always in a way that he’s trying to serve the narrative of a song.  For the Last Snowfall, it’s about this moment in winter where you’re thinking is this the last chance I’ll get to witness this?  How much more would it come into focus?  When he heard that song he immediately thought we should really do something with it where there are noises that evoke something but are actually something else.  It’s a way of kind of existing on two planes at the same time.  So the little vinyl pop noises, he thought that would be cool because it kind of sounds like a fire crackling, a wintry noise, but it’s also a reference so music technology.  So there was a lot of thought that went into it.  It’s also this thing that you’re not really sure what it is at first, but I really like it. We start out the album that you’re not really sure what’s going on.

One spontaneous moment in the album … is there a baby in the room for Grandmother Song?

We’re not really sure who it is.  At the end, the song comes to and end and we’re all being respectfully quiet, waiting for the tape to roll and you hear this little kid go Yay and there were a whole bunch of people in the room at the time, we were recording in this beautiful Victorian house, and it was this wonderful couple, this architect and his wife Sharon, always had guests coming in and out of the house, and lots of artists and musicians.  That day was a Sunday, and all of her friends were over there drinking wine. A couple of them had their kids with them. So we just recruited them all to be on this song.  I’m pretty sure there was an 8-year old, and she was the one who shouted, or maybe it might have been Sharon, because she was feeling so happy about how it all went. But she didn’t want to be too loud.

Don’t Miss Vienna Teng

Picture 17All the pundits who have declared the album dead and gone haven’t heard Vienna Teng. Just as no self-respecting music fan would buy just a single track from “Blue,” “The Wall” or “Abbey Road” and leave it at that, Teng’s newest, “Inland Territory,” deserves a full 50 minute listen.

The sweep of history informs every note.  The sound of a needle on a phonograph record (kids – ask you parents) serves as percussion in the opening bars of “Last Snowfall.”  On that track, old soul Vienna, who only recently turned 30, imagines her dying days – “if this were my last glimpse of winter/what would these eyes see?” – with the clarity of someone twice her age.

Civil War imagery dominates “Antebellum,” which is a love song typical of Teng’s early work – rich, complex and never quite naming a guilty party.  Teng’s soaring soprano is draped in chamber violins, with a lovely descant from Alex Wong (Paper Raincoat), who also co-produced the record.

“Kansas,” imagines the end of romance as a vast, empty landscape, laid to waste by nature and neglect (“every wall I lean on transforms to sliding doors and thin air”).

Wong’s delicate touch and clever choice of instrumentation and effects imbues “Inland Territory” with a timeless quality.  Each listen is a revelation.  “In Another Life” describes the life and afterlife of coal miners, revolutionaries and soldiers, with clarinet and bassoon accompaniment straight out of a New Orleans funeral.

History and humor meet on “Grandmother Song,” where  the Stanford-educated Teng is scolded for her decision to leave a Cisco engineer job – “how you gonna raise a family when you’re out on the road with some tattooed boy with a guitar?” her Chinese elder wonders as she recounts her own hardships in hopes that the granddaughter will reconsider. “You’ve got to do this for all of us,” she says.

She’s downright apocalyptic on “No Gringo” and “Radio,” the former a vision of an American migration, with strange fences along the Mexican border (“now the razor wire keeps us out”).

On the latter, San Francisco is depicted as Baghdad-deadly, with car bombs, sidewalk triage and “gunfire at freeway exits, bridges made barricades.”

The fall of the Berlin Wall frames the epic disc-closer “St. Stephen,” whose beginning swirls out of Miles Davis free jazz riffing, and ends with Gregorian chants and a spare guitar. It provides some of the album’s most beautiful moments.

So don’t give up on the long-player yet. Here’s proof that there are artists who still believe being a musician means creating a body of work.  And yes, her other three albums are just as good in their own way.  But “Inland Territory” is a masterpiece, and it should not be missed – nor should Vienna Teng.

Vienna Teng on Tour – New England and Beyond:

Narrows Center for the Arts – Fall River MA – 8 Jul 09 (Wed) w/ Katie Herzig.

Infinity Hall – Norfolk CT – 9 Jul 09 (Thu) w/ Seth Adam

Newburyport Riverfront Festival – Newburyport MA -10 Jul 09 (Fri) – sold out

Jonathan’s Restaurant – Ogunquit ME -11 Jul 09 (Sat) w/ Katie Herzig

Watercolor Café – Larchmont NY – 15 Jul 09 (Wed) w/ Katie Herzig.

Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center – Westhampton Beach NY – 17 Jul 09 (Fri)

Trio show featuring Ward Williams and Alex Wong. With Ari Hest

Towne Crier Café – Pawling NY – 19 Jul 09 (Sun) w/ Ari Hest

And Just Added – Tupelo Music Hall, Londonderry, NH – 3 Oct 09

Diana Krall @ Meadowbrook

Diana Krall - Photo by Michael Witthaus

Though threatening skies didn’t open up, Diana Krall still had to contend with nature Friday night in Gilford.  Every bullfrog, cricket and critter in the Lakes Region seemed to stir during the quiet moments of her sublime, two-hour set.

Considering Krall’s appearance was in support of a new release called “Quiet Nights,” this occasionally proved problematic.

“I … just … want … silence,” sighed Krall at one point.  “I’m going to meditate on that.”  Despite the intrusions, Krall was in fine form and good humor throughout.

As she prepared to play a Nat King Cole song, a baby’s cry broke through the darkness. Responding to a sound perhaps more familiar to the New York City-dweller and recent mother of twins, she switched up and played a few bars of “When You Wish Upon A Star,” calling it her “Jiminy Cricket” moment.

She then launched into “Deed I Do,” from her 1996 Cole tribute “All For You,” and never looked back. Diana Krall is the proverbial whole package, combining wit, charm and a raw talent that few musicians can match.

She’s able to shape her voice to not only match the mood of whatever song she’s playing, but to unearth previously undetected nuance and meaning.  While there may be more technically proficient piano players around, none owns their instrument quite like Krall.

When she cut loose, on Irving Berlin’s “Cheek to Cheek” (from her recent “Live in Rio” DVD), or the show closing “I Don’t Know Enough About You,” she was utterly, jaw-droppingly sensational.

The chemistry between Krall and her band – guitarist Tony Wilson, drummer Jeff Hamilton and bass player Robert Hurst – was stunning.  When Krall leaned back from her piano to watch Hurst bow his upright bass or take in one of Wilson’s many amazing solos, it was clear she was having as much fun as the audience.

Other highlights included the sultry “Where Or When” and the title track from “Quiet Nights,” as well as the early favorites “Peel Me A Grape” and the bouncy, buoyant “Let’s Fall In Love.”

Both Krall’s latest CD and DVD are elaborate productions, layered with orchestral flourishes and bright studio wizardry.  But Friday, it was simply Krall and her band on a sparsely furnished stage, lit by moody blue lights.  She nearly succeeded in shrinking the Meadowbrook U.S. Cellular Pavilion down to the size of a smoky Lower Manhattan jazz club.


The crowd behaved with polite deference, but the insects didn’t quite cooperate.  “It’s a bug’s life up here,” joked Krall after one of them bit her leg mid-song.  Though it was undoubtedly one of the most superlative shows the comfy shed had witnessed, the music was a little too quiet for the rustic amphitheatre.

No complaints about the music, or for that matter the venue, which is by far the best for (most) outdoor music in all of New England.  But next time through, let’s hope Diana Krall plays a smaller room, charging twice as much, for half as many fans.