Medicine Mama

Newly rocked-up Melissa Etheridge hits Hampton Beach

On her latest album Melissa Etheridge leads off rocking, with a title song focused on a favorite topic. It’s what Queen’s “We Will Rock You” would sound like if it was about legal weed, and its anthemic chorus is a singalong staple at shows.

The Medicine Show, Etheridge’s first collection of originals since 2014’s This Is M.E., is also one of her best. Standouts include “Faded By Design,” which echoes her hit “Come to My Window,” the grownup love song “I Know You,” and “Last Hello,” a tearjerker written to honor victims and survivors of the Parkland mass shooting.

A recent phone interview began with discussion of a new song that finds Etheridge calling on people’s better angels.

Your idea for “This Human Chain” came from real events, right?

Yeah. The last couple of years I was kind of taking the temperature of America, and we have a fever. I was looking for something good and [found] this story of this guy who was drowning and people on the beach formed a human chain and pulled him in. I thought human chain, I like that… I was thinking at the time they came together, I’m sure no one asked about their sexual preference or who they voted for, they all just grabbed hands and saved someone, because that’s what we do. We’re humans. Later, because I wanted to talk about it in concert, I said maybe I should find out what beach that was, so I Googled [and] found about 10 stories of different times that people were drowning and people formed a human chain, and thought oh my God, this happened more than once…

“Faded By Design” sounds like you’re telling the hounds of hell they’re barking up the wrong tree, and it’s also a way of saying every day is a treasure. Is that a good read of what you were trying to get across?

Absolutely! It’s like… I know you might not understand plant medicine is medicine, you might not understand these choices I’m making, might not understand why, it might be scary to you but don’t worry. This is something that’s been around for thousands of years, and it’s a choice. This is by design. 

When you got the cancer diagnosis and began self-medicating, was it new to you?

I was just a social sort of smoker. If someone else had it, maybe I’d take a puff.  I didn’t understand it as medicine until my good friend David Crosby, when I was started chemo, said, ‘look, you gotta take the marijuana… my friends say that’s the only thing.’ I thought well, I’ll look into this. After the first chemo they handed me all these pills – ‘this one’s for pain, this one’s gonna make you constipated, so this one’s for that’ – and I thought, oh my God I’ve already got all these chemicals that they just pumped in me, this is insane. So I started smoking regularly, every day, all day long. Yet it wasn’t to get high, but to feel normal… when I realized that, I just came out and said I have to be an advocate, this has to be a choice. 

It’s been 15 years since your cancer diagnosis; how do you feel today?

Cancer free for 15 years! I am happier – healthier than I’ve ever been.  I have a clear understanding of how important my health is. That it is my number one priority every day, because if I got that I can handle everything else. If I don’t have that, I can’t handle anything. So taking care of myself is the best thing I can do for my loved ones and of course for myself. 

“Love Will Live” is a very defiant song; you’re saying, ‘the world is moving forward whether some people want it to or not.’ What do you think of the cultural changes that have happened since you came out? 

Yeah, I’ve been very inspired by the last couple of years, the movement forward, how we treat each other. The secrets that so many women, and men also, had to bear, and the burden of shame, all the crazy stuff; it’s all coming out and it’s intense but it’s so good for us. I wanted to stay out of victimhood, that part of it. It’s a fine line between a victim and a judge, and for this song I wanted to write right in the middle. Make it just be about my own power so that someone maybe who was going through this or has this situation can find strength and not be pulled under by it and that is why it’s like, ‘things are gonna change RIGHT NOW!’ I love being able to scream that on stage, just rock it; it just feels really good. 

On a lighter note, you put out The Medicine Show on vinyl, did you pay a lot of attention to track sequencing?

Sequencing took a long time. The heavier songs, certainly the last song, ‘Last Hello’ – I just couldn’t follow it up, couldn’t put another song after it. 

Well, you’re famous for heavy last songs on your records

Thank you! You’re just gonna be sitting there going along, and then, ‘oh, man’ (laughs). I wanted to greet you with ‘The Medicine Show’ – Wake up, stand up, this is serious, I mean this, wow this is huge… I didn’t want it to be too choppy or too heavy at one point or too light, so I really worked on sequencing it. I can’t help but think that people, at least once, are going to sit down and listen to it all the way through. 

Final question; you went to Berklee College of Music early on. What are your memories?

I loved my time at Berklee. It was 1979, there wasn’t a whole lot of women there, so it was a little difficult; that certainly changed. But the best part was this girl from the Midwest coming into New England and just feeling at home. It was a great experience for a small town girl to get to know the New England way of life. I really appreciated it. 

Melissa Etheridge

When: Wednesday, August 21, 8 p.m. Where: Casino Ballroom, 169 Ocean Blvd., Hampton Beach Tickets: $29-$69 at casinoballroom.com

This story appears in the 15 August 2019 issues of Hippo Press and Seacoast Scene

Idiot show

Wry LA indie pop rocker stops in NH

It’s a story old as summer: a troubadour treks across the country, guitar in tow, playing wherever he can, emboldened by warm weather and no small amount of wanderlust. These days, a looping machine is usually packed with the merch case and sound gear in the Prius.  

For Rees Finley, it’s an essential piece of equipment. Playing solo, he said in a recent phone interview, is a “challenge to overcome.” The LA-based indie rocker’s new album, A Tale Told By An Idiot, is an emo-limned romp with a big sound built around two guitars, bass and drums.

“I’ve always been in bands,” he explained. “My music is solo in that I’m the only person who’s writing it.”

Playing solo can be a lofty job, one Finley cheekily touched on in “The Band Broke Up,” a song from his first EP. “I’m afraid I’m not enough on my own,” he sings. “Did I lose my edge trying to do it all? I’ve been writing the gospel, but I’m John, not Paul.”

He’s doing fine, really.

Finley’s packing the gigs on a tour moving from his native Ohio to locations throughout the Northeast. “Playing a show every night all the way up until August 22,” he said. “Keeping very busy.” He has two New Hampshire dates – a dinner hour set at Hermanos in Concord on August 8, and a listening room show two days later at Milford’s Union Coffee Co.

Musically, Finley’s wide ranging, citing influences from his father’s Beatles albums to Prince – for both artistry and one-man band chops – along with 90s emo and punk rock basement shows seen as a teenager in his Midwestern hometown. “My desire to go from genre to genre is honestly that I just have a short attention span,” he said. “And I always find it interesting when I see an artist who is very eclectic and never repeats themselves.”

Finley cites his original song “Kill The Lizard” as a good example of where he’s coming from.

“It has synthesizers, computer elements, but also big heavy rock guitars and some country, blues influenced guitar work and funk stuff,” he said. “There’s a lot going on, and it’s also an example of a song where I played and wrote everything… every instrument you hear is something that I put into it.”

Growing up “obsessed” with music, Finley learned several instruments at a young age. By high school, he was wrestling with whether to attend Berklee College of Music in Boston or USC. Both accepted him; he chose the latter because it offered a major in pop music performance.

The goal was a school doing more than “100 year old classical music or jazz that you’re not going to hear on the radio,” he said. “I wanted to be able to work on contemporary stuff, and this was one of the only programs that could do it.”

By the time he graduated, Finley was immersed in the SoCal music scene, and he’s lived there since.

“The people that I met in school are the people that I continue to work with,” he said. “I think it has been really good decision for me to kind of position myself there, and the community has been really such a part of my life.” A CD release show in late June at the Peppermint Lounge was packed with friends, providing a nice sendoff for his nomadic summer.

He’s energized by the tour, which is taking him to many places for the first time. “I want to meet and reach new people that haven’t heard of me before,” he said. “I’m also am really excited about traveling and seeing a lot of America that I haven’t been able to check out before… seeing different walks of life. It’s really inspiring as an artist.” Even better is keeping it all about playing songs. “It’s such a blast to be able to really focus on being the best musician I can full time.  Living in LA, I’m sometimes doing other things like teaching to help pay the bills. Being on the road, I really get to focus on performance. That’s been really great.”

Rees Finley

When: Saturday, August 10, 8 p.m. | Where: Union Coffee Company, 42 South St., Milford | More: reesfinley.com

Also appears August 8, 6:30 p.m., at Hermanos Cocina Mexicana, 11 Hills Ave., Concord (226-2635)

All in the family

New Kingston brings progressive reggae to Salisbury Beach

New Kingston Perform Live

The roots of Jamaican music go back further than Bob Marley and Johnny Nash, or even Desmond Dekker, whose 1968 hit “Israelites” was the first taste of the island’s music for much of the world. Prior to all that, before Jamaica had gained its independence from Britain even, singer Alton Ellis recorded with producer Coxsone Dodd at Studio One, early home  to many vital reggae artists. In the early 1970s, Ellis’s “Get Ready To Rock Steady” named an entire movement.

Bass player Courtney Panton, a first generation Jamaican-American, performed with Ellis in his band Kingston Crew. He  and his wife had three sons, and in their teens, Panton steered each toward a different instrument – Courtney, Jr. took up drums, Tahir found keyboards, and Stephen Suckarie picked up a guitar.

Toward the end of Ellis’s life, all four Pantons played in Kingston Crew. After Ellis passed, the name changed to New Kingston in tribute. Since the release of a debut album in 2010, the Brooklyn band has become a force in reggae, with a sound that melds urban influences to roots music.

Courtney Panton, Jr. is a whirlwind of energy behind the kit, singing, rapping and dancing on his stool. He frequently DJs, and acts as New Kingston’s spokesperson. In a recent phone interview, he spoke of the band’s mission, and an upcoming show at Salisbury’s SurfSide ocean bar.

“There are so many things that we think about every day,” he said. “But our common goal is the music keeping us together as a family more than anything.”

They began playing together in middle and high school, jamming in their Brooklyn basement. This offered a way to keep them from playing in the streets. “It was at a deciding point, a definition point,” Courtney Jr. said, recalling when his dad brought home a bunch of instruments and told each boy to pick one. “Injecting music right there at that moment was like alright, this is cool [and] he actually paid us to practice… so we don’t have to get a job.”

Dad played bass and picked songs for them, beginning with The Wailers and Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Fantasy.” Eventually, after shake out shows in cabarets and neighborhood parties, they were writing originals. When New Kingston released its first album, it was fittingly named In the Streets.

Their 2013 follow-up contained another nod to their father’s influence – it was called Kingston University. “A lot of people don’t know our past history… with his extensive background, he pretty much put us in college in terms of that,” Courtney Jr. said, noting that many of the genre’s greats were also his peers. “More like friends and family; we got the opportunity to meet them and play for a lot of them. It kind of seasoned us.”

In 2014, they signed with Easy Star Records, and the following January released Kingston City, a breakout effort that hit Number One on the Billboard Top Reggae Album charts. A Kingston Story: Come From Far arrived two years later. Made in a Brooklyn nightclub during a tour break, it reflected the band’s “Brooklyn, Jamaica” live show energy.

Courtney Jr. said a new album is in the planning stages, and will be a more deliberate effort than the last one, a five day jam distilled into a record’s worth of songs. “We played everything like we used to back in the day, and got like 40 jams out of it,” he said of the band’s previous disc. “We kind of laid the ideas out, and just chopped it down.” Asked about the potential pitfalls of being a family band, Courtney Jr. laughed and called unity part of the common goal. “Every man is a lion, that’s a saying… but we try to understand each other,” he said. “That’s the thing; we’re a family, we’re gonna be together for our lives, so we gotta figure it out.”

New Kingston w/ Over the Bridge and Green Lion Crew

When: Sunday, August 11, 5 p.m. | Where: SurfSide,  25 Broadway, Salisbury | Tickets: $16 at ticketmaster.com ($20/door)

Bringing it all back

Jim Messina performs at Tupelo Music Hall

There’s not enough time in a Jim Messina concert for all the music he’s been part of, so selections from his early 60s surf band won’t be included when he plays Tupelo Music Hall on August 2. His show does include cuts from seminal folk rock band Buffalo Springfield, along with Poco, which doesn’t get nearly the credit it deserves for helping create what’s now known as Americana. Messina also dips into his eponymous 1981 solo album, another overlooked gem.

Of course, fans can count on hearing “Angry Eyes,” “Your Mama Don’t Dance,” “My Music” and other hits from his time  with Kenny Loggins. Interestingly, the decade defining duo came together more out of professional necessity than musical kindredness, Messina explained in a recent phone interview.

Though it’s not obvious from the many Top 10 hits he’s played on, Messina began as a sound man who happened to play guitar and sing. In 1965, still in high school, he took a job at Ibis Records in Los Angeles. A few years later, an imploding Buffalo Springfield asked him to produce their final album. In a trend to be repeated with Loggins & Messina, he joined the group, replacing bassist Bruce Palmer when he was deported for drug possession.

Following the release of Last Time Around, he and Springfield  singer/guitarist Richie Furay formed Poco with pedal steel player Rusty Young, future Eagle Randy Meisner and drummer George Grantham. Messina lasted three albums, growing tired of hearing radio stations say either the band was too rock for country or too country for rock.

“Poco could sell out a show no matter where they went,” he said, but airplay and sales didn’t follow. “Those two areas are like part of a line going through New Mexico and Arizona to California… to make that journey, you have to cross through different environments.” The record company loved Poco, but couldn’t close the deal where it counted, on the air.

So Messina headed back to the studio, signing to do artist development and produce at Columbia Records. He turned down Dan Fogelberg as a client because he was too interested in recreating Poco’s sound. He chose instead the raw but clearly talented Loggins, who’d shown up to his first session with Messina with some great songs – and no guitar.

Undeterred, Messina grabbed a catgut six-string from his closet and handed it to him with a “show me what you got.” He  heard “House at Pooh Corner,” “Danny’s Song” and “Vahevala” in reply and decided he wanted to work with Loggins, but wasn’t sure how the green performer would fare once an album was done.

“Kenny was not yet a boss; he didn’t know how to set up rehearsals or give direction,” he said, adding promotion, label relations and tour logistics to the list. Further, as producer, Messina’s success was intertwined with Loggins. “I thought, who is going to do this for Kenny, and really for me? To get a hit record, I gotta know this band’s going to be performing and working, and everybody’s got the confidence that they need.”

He poured himself into the project, offering songs like “Peace of Mind” and “Same Old Wine” to help un-folk Loggins’ sound; gradually, a solo effort became a duo album, though Messina insisted to label head Clive Davis it was temporary.

“In order to make Kenny and his band work, someone has to be there to help direct it, and at first Clive did not want me doing that,” Messina recalled; Davis had experience with one and done groups. “I explained to him this isn’t a band that is going to break up, this is me sitting in with Kenny… just like Leon Russell did with Delaney & Bonnie.”

The album’s title – Kenny Loggins with Jim Messina Sittin’ In – made this intention clear, he stressed to Davis. “I said my object is to get him out on the road performing, and help promote this album in a way so he can get consistent… and then I’m out of there.”

Happily, that’s not what happened.

Five more studio albums followed, and a pair of live discs, before the two parted in 1976. Reunion tours in the 2000s and a one-off benefit last year help keep the fire alive; Messina hints more shows could happen. Loggins’ health is an issue; a sore neck makes touring difficult. “When Kenny and I play together, it’s there… it all depends on Kenny,” Messina said, adding a pun and a laugh, “When the stars line up, all planets are somewhere away from Uranus; we’re okay.”

When: Friday, August 2, 8 p.m.

Where: Tupelo Music Hall, 10 A Street, Derry

More: $45-$50 at tupelohall.com

This story appears in the 1 August 2019 edition of Hippo Press

Lucky guy

Chris Smither performs in Portsmouth

In the late 1970s, hard living nearly stopped Chris Smither cold. For 10 years, he didn’t perform, spending the hiatus, he said, “retreating into a whiskey bottle.” Fortunately, Smither survived and thrived. Now 74, he’s making some of his best music. Call Me Lucky, released in March 2018, finds him both reflective and cantankerous, with his pulsing fingerpicking guitar style right in the pocket.

“It all comes down to the sound of something longing to be,” he sings on one of the new collection’s best songs. Smither continues to write like his life depends on it, deftly addressing mortality on “By The Numbers” and raging about modern ennui with “Nobody Home,” a raucous complaint about technology, and the current state of politics.

Along with strong new originals, Call Me Lucky also contains a few well-chosen covers, including a faithful version of the Beatles’ “She Said She Said” born from a missing a John Lennon tribute concert in New York City due to heart surgery. “It’s always been the song that convinced me the Beatles were actually on to something,” Smither said by phone recently.  “I didn’t get really involved in them until Revolver came out; I would just play it over and over again. It was haunting.”

Smither finds sadness at the core of two more covers, the early blues standard “Sittin’ On Top Of The World” and Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene.” The latter is especially revelatory; who knew what a sad, desperate song it was? “I know!” Smither exclaimed, crediting longtime producer David Goodrich for suggesting it at a planning meeting for the new album a few months before Berry’s death in 2017.  

“He had turned 90 and just put out a new record,” Smither continued. “We’re wondering what on earth does Chuck Berry sound like at 90? Kind of laid back? Changed; depressed? Then Goody leans over to me and says, ‘hey, play ‘Maybelline’ and see if you can do it in a minor key.’ We sat around and played with it for about ten minutes. Then we just looked at each other and said, ‘oh, we gotta do this, this is amazing.’”

Smither’s first new effort in six years was also one of his most enjoyable projects. Done at Blue Rock Studio in Austin with a tight band including Goodrich, Billy Conway, Matt Lorenz and engineer Keith Gary (who also played piano), it stretched into a double album with B Side transformations of Smither originals. “Everything On Top” is startling, moving from a blues shuffle to a raver worthy of Alejandro Escovedo.

“That’s easily the most rocked out thing I’ve ever done,” Smither said. The retakes were done after hours, motivated by his producer’s desire to hip more artists to him. “Goody has this thing where he thinks nobody covers me enough.” Offers are rebuffed by claims that Smither’s guitar style can’t be imitated. “He keeps trying to tell them, ‘you don’t have to play the guitar, you can do these songs any way you want.’”

To prove the point, early in the sessions, the band laid down a wild musical track while Smither slept. “I walked in the next morning and it was playing through the speakers,” he recalled. “I said, ‘what the hell is that?’ and they said, ‘it’s ‘Everything On Top’ – see if you can sing it.’ It took me about two tries, and it was a lot of fun.”

Five more cuts got the late night treatment. “They’d just take one of the songs we had done that day and redo it, entirely differently,” Smither said. “I’d come in the next morning and they would dare me to sing it; the whole point of it was that on none of them was I playing the guitar.”

Through it all, Smither remains a steady troubadour, touring with more stamina that many artists half his age.

“I love the playing;  I don’t like the going as much as I used to,” he said. “The traveling… is a little bit daunting, but once I get out there, I’m fine. I did this tour in January of this year and it was about as busy as I care to be, Ireland and the UK, 19 shows in 22 days. But halfway through it, I’m starting to feel pretty strong. You get all honed up, and put one foot in front of the other; before you know it, you’re back home.”

When: Friday, August 2, 8 p.m.

Where: 3S Artspace, 319 Vaughan St., Portsmouth

Tickets: $30 at eventbrite.com ($35/door)