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)