Local Rhythms – Musical Independence

Picture 6I was all set to write about the Fourth of July until my mood was interrupted by thoughts of a different sort of independence.

A common thread runs through many of the interviews I’ve done with female singer-songwriters – they all cite Patty Griffin as a key influence.  Many have said she’s the reason they started writing songs.

Which brings a special poignancy to the way Griffin’s early career was mismanaged by record companies.

Her label (A&M) tried to turn Griffin’s first album into a country-rock comic book before scrapping the studio sessions and releasing her original demo.  Thank goodness – “Living With Ghosts” is a raw, naked masterpiece, rivaled only by Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” for its seminality.

She wasn’t as lucky with “Silver Bell,” her would-be third album.  It became a hostage of A&M’s sale to Interscope, and has never been released.

Fortunately, Patty Griffin chose not to be beaten down by this situation.  She severed ties with her new label, and signed with Dave Matthews’ ATO Records.

What followed was a career-defining body of work that’s still in progress.

How much more artistic freedom does she have?  Her next album is a collection of gospel covers!

Over the years, “Silver Bell” has become something of a holy grail for me, and I’ve managed to find all but one track online.

But last weekend I was surprised by some great news.

A musician who worked on “Silver Bell” gave a close to perfect copy of the sessions (including a track I didn’t even know existed) to a blogger, who proceeded to leak it the world.

God bless him – great music must be heard.

We are witnessing an era of independence like no other, with artists in control of their destinies, and the checkbook clowns who once owned them dead on the side of the road.

Follow my lead, and steal a copy of “Silver Bell.”

Ask yourself – what’s the possible upside of keeping this music away from the public?

Why waste time, as EMI did recently, refusing to participate in efforts to grow the Internet as a music distribution platform and dreaming of a return to 1990?

Ifhippies can’t bring back Woodstock Nation, what makes the record business think there’s another Michael Jackson out there capable of moving 20 million units?

It’s time to get real – set the music free.

Happy Independence Day – here’s the happenings:

Thursday: Antje Duvekot & Chris O’Brien, Boccelli’s – A wonderful night of folk music in Bellows Falls, featuring Duvekot, a singer-songwriter who gets better every day (her latest, produced by Richard Shindell, is a gem).  O’Brien is a BF favorite who’s working on a new album to follow his scintillating debut, 2007’s “Lighthouse.”  I’ve been looking forward to this one for a long time.

Friday: Diana Krall, Meadowbrook U.S, Cellular Pavilion – I confess, I knew a lot about Krall’s interpretive singing style and very little about her musicianship until I saw her on her husband Elvis Costello’s “Spectacle.”   Her piano playing is amazing.  Elton John interviewed her, and his smitten air playing told me all I need to know – this will be a great show.

Saturday: Neil Diamond, Boston Esplanade – OK, there’s a ton of stuff going on today – Woodstock’s old fashioned fourth, Avi & Celia in Bellows Falls (and Brattleboro), fireworks everywhere, Roadhouse at the Anchorage.  But if I could be one place only, it would next to the Charles River experiencing the annual Pops concert featuring the reborn Diamond and an unbelievable show in the sky.

Sunday:  Áine Minogue, St. Gaudens – The summer series of concerts begins in Cornish with this Irish-born harp player, vocalist, folklorist and lecturer. The Boston Globe says Minogue “combines a hypnotic Celtic spirituality and contemporary sophistication in her playing and delicately lovely singing.”  I can’t think of a better instrument to waft through the statuary at Saint Gaudens, a local treasure.

Monday:  Open Mike with Second Wind, Digby’s – There’s a serious open mike scene in the area.  Terry Ray Gould hosts this Sunapee confab with his partner Suzy Hastings, and his Facebook posts about it have been positively giddy.  Serious fun, prizes, drink specials and loads of musical camaraderie.  They must call it “hospitality night” for a reason.  For my money, it’s a perfect way to spend Monday night.

Wednesday: Yvonne & the Reverbs, Lyman Point Band Shell – Outdoor shows seem to be a dodgey venture these days – will the rain ever end?  Fortunately, this weekly free series of summer shows repairs to the Bugbee Senior Center if the skies open up.  This Wednesday, it’s a country rock band with a good reputation in area clubs for keeping the energy level high.

“Fillmore” – Much Graham, some music

Picture 2Carlos Santana’s instrument is the guitar, Ian Anderson’s the flute, and Robert Plant’s the microphone.

Bill Graham’s was the telephone.

Graham would curse, cajole and complain to get his way with the acts playing his venues, and in the recently unearthed 1972 documentary “Fillmore,” he’s in high dudgeon.

Sure, there’s plenty of good music in this chronicle of the last week of shows at Graham’s first big hall, the Fillmore West in San Francisco (his Fillmore East in New York closed around the same time, but wasn’t filmed).

But more memorable than Hot Tuna performing “Uncle Sam Blues” or the Grateful Dead tearing up “Johnny B. Goode” is the sight of Graham arguing with a disgruntled musician, threatening to rip his teeth out and chasing him down a flight of stairs.

More than any other promoter, Graham put a personal stamp on the shows he booked.  He’d pair a Russian poet with the Jefferson Airplane, or put Lenny Bruce and Frank Zappa on the same bill.  Graham fed his patrons breakfast after marathon New Year’s Eve shows, or let them in early to watch Max Fleisher cartoons pre-show when the weather outside was cold.

He orchestrated perhaps the most elaborate rock concert spectacle in history, the Band’s “Last Waltz” in 1976, featuring a who’s who of the music business paired with a turkey dinner.

Graham was a driving force in the world of live music, pioneering the first large-scale stadium shows in the early 1970s, managing massive tours for the Rolling Stones, staging Live Aid and the US Festival in the early 1980s.  He died in a 1991 helicopter crash, flying home from the Concord Pavilion, one of  many venues he bought or built on his way to becoming as important to the business as the bands he presented.

“Fillmore” is really about the end of the (somewhat) innocent trade in which Graham honed his craft, and the beginning of the concert business that dominated the rest of the 20th century.  That industry, both good and bad, was in many ways the creation of Bill Graham – Holocaust survivor, would-be actor and fire-breathing impresario.

A few musical highlights from “Fillmore” – and really, there are only a few:

Santana is in prime form just months after the release of “Abraxas,” and their reading of Miles Davis’s “In A Silent Way” is one of the film’s high points.  Quicksilver Messenger Service, a band that never quite broke out of the San Francisco scene, is also superb.

Neither, however, is a match for Graham’s telephone tantrums.  “I gotta be worried about placating everybody,” he yells into the receiver at one point. “WHAT ABOUT ME?”

Ultimately, that’s the problem with “Fillmore” – it’s mostly about Graham.

Key performances are missing from the film (some appeared on the soundtrack album) – Creedence Clearwater Revival, Tower of Power, New Riders of the Purple Sage.

Cold Blood, Elvin Bishop and the execrable Lamb are all make it into “Fillmore,” however.  Coincidentally, they were also on Graham’s short-lived record label.

So it’s not too hard to sympathize with ex-Charlatan Mike Wilhelm as he begs for a spot on the final shows.  “Look who’s playing,” he says, adding that Grootna, another band closely aligned with Graham’s label aspirations, “sounds like it’s been together two weeks.”

“F**k you and thanks for the memories,” says  Wilhelm finally, prompting the chase down the stairs and a promise form Graham to not be so nice when the cameras aren’t rolling.  One gets them impression, though, that none of it would have happened if it wasn’t being filmed.

A final complaint – reissues should add content, not subtract.  For some inexplicable reason, Boz Scaggs, who did a sublime version of “I’ll Be Long Gone” in the theatrical release, is left off of the Rhino DVD version.

Further, there’s nary a shred of extra content, just a well-written (albeit short) essay from ex-Rolling Stone editor Ben Fong-Torres.  Who knows, maybe all the outtakes were lost when a neo-Nazi burned down Graham’s headquarters in the mid-80’s.

Maybe Rhino’s hoarding everything for a 2011 40th Anniversary Deluxe Edition.

Still, “Fillmore” is a documentary every music fan should see, even if it’s not as perfect as it could have been.

Fillmore Bonus Tracks

To commemorate the 38th anniversary of the closing of the Fillmore West, the Wolfgang’s Vault website recently made nearly all of the performances from the last week available for free streaming – including the previously unheard final set from Creedence Clearwater Revival.  Included are:

June 30, 1971
Boz Scaggs, Cold Blood, Elvin Bishop & Stoneground – plus an end of the night jam session featuring Bishop, Scaggs, Santana drummer Michael Shrieve, Taj Mahal and the Pointer Sisters (two years prior to recording their first album)

July 1, 1971
It’s a Beautiful Day and Lamb

July 2, 1971
Grateful Dead, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Rowan Brothers

July 3, 1971
Hot Tuna, Quicksilver Messenger Service, Sons of Champlin (performing as Yogi Phlegm)

July 4, 1971
Creedence Clearwater Revival, Santana, Tower of Power

“Music Box in the Moore” brings cutting edge upcountry



A lower Manhattan vibe will permeate downtown Hanover for three midsummer evenings with  “Music Box in the Moore,” a musical showcase of cutting edge talent, presented in a unique and intimate setting.

Performing July 14 is QQQ,  playing what HOP Publicity Coordinator Becky Bailey terms “revved up acoustic music” with many disparate influences.  Picture a Norwegian wedding march performed during a key scene of “Deliverance” to get a sense of QQQ’s sound, which NPR termed “an odd sort of Americana,” existing “somewhere between Brooklyn, Oslo and the hills of Appalachia.”

Next up on July 23 is Die Roten Punkte.  This wry and funny duo could have been the house band for “Sprockets,” the old Mike Myers SNL bit with Dieter, the German fashionista who constantly asked guests if they’d like to touch his monkey.

Otto and Astrid Rot are a Berlin-based brother and sister act touched with, shall we say, affection issues.   Their name is German for “Red Dots,” a playful homage to another (faux) sibling act.  Don’t be alarmed if their frequent familial hugging devolves into tongue wrestling, though.  It’s a guise – a brilliant, hilarious one at that.

Their music is Kraftwerk meets Spinal Tap, with instruments made by Mattel.    They employ a fractured dialect, which exudes an ‘’even though English is not my native tongue, I speak it better than you’ arrogance that’s totally winning, making for a must-see appearance.

Finally, cellist Erik Friedlander, who plays his instrument in ways Yo-Yo Ma never dreamed of, arrives August 1.  He’ll perform a suite of compositions backed by an inventive multimedia show that’s a slice of pre-Interstate Americana.   Friedlander’s father is famed photographer Lee Friedlander, recently the subject of a Museum of Modern Art retrospective.   The show, entitled “Block Ice and Propane,” features pictures taken by the elder Friedlander during family cross-country car trips in the mid-1960s.

Friedlander’s blend of history, art and experimental sound is consistent with the Hopkins Center mission to give the local scene a contemporary edge, says Bailey

“We brought in performers who are more like the kind you’d see in an urban club,” she says, “ to try to give people in the Upper Valley access to new artists in a variety of genres – music that’s new and unconventional.”

The venue choice was a bold stroke borne out of necessity.  “We were losing Spaulding Auditorium due to construction.  Moore is good for dance but not for music,” says Bailey.  Using a successful run of avant-garde puppet shows last winter as a “theatre within a theatre” template, the space will be transformed – drawing the stage curtain to shrink the room, and setting up tiered seating, four rows deep on three sides.

“It has really nice sound, it’s really intimate, and you’re right there with the performers,” says Bailey.

QQQ, Die Roten Punkte and Erik Friedlander will each do a 7 and 9 pm show (tickets are $15, $10 for Dartmouth students), The late shows will be followed by an after-hours “lounge” open to all patrons, with free light refreshments, and a chance to mingle with the artists.