Home on the road – Rockwood Taylor

Lynne Taylor and Charlie Rockwood Farr met in a band and bonded over a love of touring. A recent phone interview with the duo, who perform as Rockwood Taylor, fittingly occurred as they drove down a long stretch of Ohio highway, and was punctuated by sightings from the road. 

“Oh, look, the ‘Hell Is Real’ sign!” exclaimed Taylor as they passed a famous billboard on I-71, reading from it as they passed, “How will you spend eternity?”

Their ultimate destination was The Purple Fiddle, a West Virginia hill country venue that’s a perfect fit for the pair’s mix of Shovels & Rope rusticity and singer/songwriter emotion. After a show there, it’s back to Newburyport, where they both live, and a celebratory release party for their first record together, Finding Home.

The EP’s four songs brim with melancholy and remembrance. “Heading Home” is a co-write set in the twilight of living, but there’s a fondness in the narrator’s resignation: “It’s been a good life, now I’m headed home,” he sings. 

“It’s sad but restful, an old guy sitting on the porch playing his guitar,” Farr explained. “We built the song around that and came up with some imagery of what his life would be. It’s melancholy, but whatever happens in life there’s the next step. It’s going back home, end of life reflecting – I was trying to look at that in a positive way.”

The EP’s title came after the collection was done. They realized that although the songs were about dusty memories, like “You Remember Me,” written by Taylor about her childhood piano, or escaping, as in Farr’s train song “Steel Wheels,” each was connected to home; both as an ideal and a place. 

“I’ve lived many lifetimes in one life, musically as well,” Taylor said. “I started out in a punk band, I’ve done all kinds of rock, bluegrass, alt country – it’s always this constant search for home, and that’s where the title came from. It’s interesting to me how that sort of presented itself organically.”

Even the wanderlust that causes them to tour whenever they have the chance is reflected, Farr said. “We’re finding home in all kinds of places on the road.”

Moving between the frenetic energy of punk and the gentleness of what they do now isn’t a stretch, Taylor insists. “When you think about it, folk music is really punk music,” she said. “It’s simple chords, direct messages, and if you want to go back to the protest and social commentary in folk music, which is where I come from, that’s what it is in punk.”

The two have played Newburyport Brewery many times, from when they were the rhythm section of Liz Frame & the Kickers to their time in other bands, like the punky, now defunct Halo and the Harlots, and River Valley Ramblers, an ongoing bluegrass band comprised of teachers at the charter school where Taylor works. 

Still, the release show is extra special. “It’s gonna be great to play one of our favorite local venues as Rockwood Taylor, and release the EP to our friends and fans; that’s what we’re looking forward to,” Taylor said, adding gleefully, “andwe’ve got t-shirts! It’s my first time having a band t-shirt.”

The shirt, like the albums’ cover, is adorned with a woodcut of a high flying bird carrying the band’s name on a banner in its beak, gliding past a setting sun. Drawn by local artist Patrick Pollard, it’s a wonderful depiction of the duo’s outlook. Pollard is, coincidentally, currently exhibiting his folk art at the Brewery.

For the release show, Rockwood Taylor will be joined by a percussionist, “and some other guest artists,” Farr said.

A Fan’s Show

Gretchen Klempa

Though Joel Greer isn’t a musician, he has an excellent ear for music. Coupling that talent with a dogged determination to share his love of local and regional talent with others led to Summit Indie Fest. The all-day event, in its second year, offers a multi-genre array of performers from New Hampshire, Massachusetts and far away as New York. 

“For lack of a better term, I’m a professional appreciator of music, but I was never able to play,” Greer said by phone from  his home in Lawrence, Mass. “I thought that curating a music festival would be a good way to introduce a little bit of art into the world.”

Greer’s criteria for what to book is personal. “Let me find bands that I’d drive a long way to see on a Monday or Tuesday night,” he said. “It’s not about ticket sales, but more about following my heart [and] I also targeted bands that I consider under-appreciated.”  It’s a wide ranging lineup – ten acts, playing on two stages, inside and outside Portsmouth Book & Bar, from afternoon into the evening. 

Kingsley Flood is slated to close the show. They’re a Boston Music Award-winning band fronted by Naseem Khuri, a modern day Woody Guthrie with a keen contemporary eye, as evidenced in their 2018 album, Neighbors and Strangers. On one song, “Fifth of July,” the child of Palestinian immigrants sings, “call me a trespasser and untrue, and I’ll tell your history better than you.”

One of Greer’s favorites is Troll 2,  also hailing from Boston – Jamaica Plain, to be precise. He likes the folk punk band’s mix of social awareness and offbeat spirit. “They have a fun saying – ‘when you come see us, we play music and you fall down.’ They never play down to a venue; they set their own atmosphere, and it’s so infectious.”

Brooklyn-based Def.GRLS sports a fun, lo-fi, ‘shrooms and surfing sound that fans of early B-52s records will gobble up. “The genre bending trio is impossible to pigeon hole,” a press release said, calling them “perpetually oscillating between the irreverent, macabre, hilarious and heartfelt.”  

In 2018, Gretchen & the Pickpockets brought a soulful, brassy sound to the festival. This year, lead singer and keyboard player Gretchen Klempa returns with her own quartet. “She’s really great solo, with a really talented bunch of musicians backing her up,” Greer said. “The vibe is really cool.”

For straight up rock and roll, look no further than Carissa Johnson, whose full throttle approach recalls early aughts Boston bands Aloud and Damone. In 2017, the singer/guitarist won Boston’s highly competitive Rock & Roll Rumble and capped the year with a Boston Music Award win for Best New Act (she received four BMA nominations in 2018).

Asked which bands he’s most excited to have at the festival, Greer named As The Sparrow – “they’re large, it’s a full sound and they’re really top notch songwriters” – and The Wolff Sisters – “fantastic country folk” – and added he’s also a big fan of the downtown bookstore, coffee/craft beer bar, and performance space that’s hosting Summit Indie Fest.

“I wanted a venue that could really add to the event,” he said. “I approached Book and Bar because I know what a quality place it is and what an intimate setting it can be – so many big festivals lose their intimacy. I also know they totally believe in the arts too.”

Proceeds from  the event will help build a music program at Team Summit, the youth development program Greer runs in Lawrence, but he’s quick to point out Summit Indie Fest isn’t a typical charity event. “It’s a music festival first; no baskets or 50/50 raffles,” he said. “My mission is to gather in the spirit of philantrophy, and share our love and passion for music.”

Back Porch Boppin’

Signature Sounds, a label that launched Josh Ritter, Lori McKenna, Crooked Still, Tha Mammals and other great roots acts, is equally astute at presenting live music. This talent was on display over the four day Back Porch Festival, at multiple venues in and around Northampton.

Friday’s show at Gateway City Arts in Holyoke was a Mardi Gras themed party led by Zydeco royalty – CJ Chenier, son of Clifton Chenier, the first Zydeco artist to win a Grammy. The “Crown Prince of Zydeco” fronted his Red Hot Louisiana Band, playing familiar favorites like “My Toot Toot” and “Jambalaya” along with his own great material.

Chenier’s band spoon player Tony “Gumbo” Brown, whose kinetic energy kept the crowd jumping when Chenier wasn’t whipping it up (which didn’t happen often), rounded out by fiery guitar playing and a solid rhythm section.

A high point came when Chenier and his mates moved into the crowd for a song. Who knew a wireless squeezebox even existed? The Red Hot Louisiana Band lived up to its name, and kept the crowd dancing through its 90-minute set.

Vermont-based Green Mountain Playboys played a well-received opening set.

Signature label honcho Jim Olsen held forth throughout the night, serving up traditional New Orleans King Cake and awarding prizes for the costume contest. Grand prize was three-day passes to this year’s Green River Festival, which kicks off July 12. 

Royalty of the bluegrass variety was on display the following night, as the Earls of Leicester performed at the Academy of Music in downtown Northampton, playing only songs by legendary duo Flatt & Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Boys. Dobro player without compare Jerry Douglas is the most famous name in the six-man band, but all are the best of the best.

The show was marked by humor and hot licks – more than a few metal bands could benefit if this bunch offered speed lessons. Douglas, Shawn Camp, Barry Bales, Johnny Warren, Charlie Cushman, and Jeff White roared through classics like “Salty Dog Blues,” “Rollin’ in My Sweet Baby’s Arms” and the hilarious “My Mother Prays So Loud In Her Sleep” while seamlessly trading leads. It was a master class in the genre.

Preceding the headliners were rising stars Twisted Pine, a Signature Sounds artist, and Asheville based Town Mountain, along with banjo player Danny Barnes. All were superb.

According to Olsen’s Facebook page, the festival – named for his weekly Back Porch radio show – included 22 sets of music and sold over 1,900 tickets. Pretty fine for a small town shindig. Can’t wait for next year, also the official 25thanniversary of Signature Sounds’ first release.

To be Rebecca Loebe

The title of Rebecca Loebe’s new album Give Up Your Ghosts is a mission statement for the singer-songwriter: nothing is impossible. Fearlessness is in her DNA, so it’s really a continuing idea. Loebe (pronounced low-bee) made it into Berklee Music College at 16 years old, landed on Season 1 of The Voice (she’s the only non-champion with a track on the show’s compilation album), and is indie as it gets; the latest release is part of her first-ever label deal.

This time around, courage paid artistic dividends. When asked to compose a couple of very specific songs for a television show, Loebe initially balked. “I was reading the email and thinking, ‘no, can’t do it, that’s not how I work,” she said from her home in Austin. “I’m inspired organically; I’m not just this monkey who can crank out a song.”

Spurred by a big potential payout, Loebe relented. Though neither song made the show, both became standouts on the new album. “Tattoo” is a lovely breakup ballad, while “Got Away” rocks with edgy danger. Writing them taught Loebe “a concrete lesson about self-limiting beliefs; what is actually true, or what is me being afraid that I can’t do something, and therefore telling myself it’s impossible.”

Loebe’s previous four albums were arduous and time consuming to create. The new one, however, came in a creative burst that lasted only a few months. “It was just wild, I never experienced anything like it before,” she said. “Rather than write for the art of crafting songs over a several year period and choosing the ones that feel the strongest, it was a process of expressing what was currently happening, currently on my mind, my heart … it felt very cohesive and timely, right now.”

She’s something of a reluctant songwriter and performer. Although she’d established a reputation in her hometown of Atlanta before setting out for Boston, Loebe shied away from performing at Berklee. She majored in sound engineering, and took a job at a studio upon graduation.

“The average age of a freshman at Berklee when I was there was 25,” she explained of her reticence to perform. “I felt like basically still a high school kid who sneaked in off the street. So overwhelmed by the talent around me, and a little intimated.”

Focusing on production turned out to be a good choice. “If I had been trying to divide my attention between performance and engineering, I wouldn’t have gotten as far in either,” she said. “It also gave me a way to participate in the school, to be a member of the community and the ecosystem there by helping other students, by having something to offer that wasn’t musical but I was comfortable with.”

Fortunately, an instructor coaxed Loebe into finishing the many songs “secretly” written at Berklee in her spare studio time, so the world wasn’t deprived of her talent. She got back into her performing groove and by 2009 she’d won the New Folk prize at the 2009 Kerrville Folk Festival. Having established herself as a songwriter, her singing led to a spot with Team Adam on The Voice two years later.

On Give Up Your Ghosts, Loebe hits many lyrical highs, looking at social anxiety with the inspirational “Popular,” riffing on fame with “Everything Changes,” sounding soulful and scrappy on “Growing Up” and, on the title song, casting off demons that are “never holding you as close as you are holding them.” It’s solid effort from start to finish.

The new disc builds on success achieved last year with Nobody’s Girl, a supergroup including Loebe, Betty Soo and Grace Pettis. The trio began as a three-headliner package tour, but grew bigger. “Something magical happened in the planning phases,” Loebe said. “We got together to try writing one song, for a show finale. At the end of the writing retreat… they offered us a record deal as a band. We hadn’t even played a gig together yet.”

This originally appeared in the 21 February 2019 issue of Seacoast Scene

BOX ME

Rebecca Loebe w/ BettySoo

When: Thursday, Feb. 21, 8 p.m.

Where: Windham Ballroom, 36 The Square, Bellows Falls, VT

Tickets: $15 at popolomeanspeople.com

Talking with John Lodge of the Moody Blues

This originally appeared in Hippo Press, 7 February 2019

Although he wasn’t an original member of the Moody Blues, John Lodge holds founder’s stock in the Rock & Roll Hall of Famers. As a teenager, he was in band that included Ray Thomas and Mike Pinder, but he declined an invite to enjoy the edition of the Moodies that scored a hit with “Go Now” so he could finish college.

Lodge came on board along with Justin Hayward in 1966 and helped create Days of Future Passed, an album that changed   music’s landscape upon its release a year later. He’s remained with the band ever since; when the the group’s not touring, Lodge plays solo. His latest release is Live from Birmingham: The 10,000 Light Years Tour.

Lodge performs at Tupelo Music Hall in Derry on Feb. 13. He talked via Skype from Barbados.

How did it feel to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame?

It’s a great honor. You know, rock and roll came from America and it was sent to England – to be honest, we repackaged it and sent it back … for me to be honored and stand tall next to my heroes, my icons – Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, Gene Vincent, Little Richard – when I was 12 or 13 looking at them on stage in Britain and thinking, “how on earth can I be part of that?” Buddy Holly came along and showed me and lot of other English people how to become musicians, how to write songs and perform. You didn’t have to be this huge larger than life icon.

Your 2017 live album marks many high points of your career. Is your current show similar to it?

Well it is in a way, and it isn’t – I’ve just expanded it a bit further … there are songs that I’ve never played with the Moody Blues like “Candle of Life” and “Saved By The Music.” I think the show’s got a lot of energy, incredible energy. It’s got keyboards, guitar, but I’ve got a cellist in there. I love cello, it’s an integral part of my sound. Songs like “Isn’t Life Stange” feature cello. Also on this tour – Ray Thomas and I were great friends; I met Ray when I was 14, and we’d been working together ever since. Unfortunately Ray passed away… I wanted to keep his music alive, so I’m doing “Legend of a Mind” on stage in tribute to Ray; I’m also doing a song of Mike Pinder’s. I think it’s really important, because they’re not playing those songs anymore – the Moody Blues will never play them.

“Saved by the Music” was on your duo album with Justin Hayward, Blue Jays. Will there ever be a follow up to that?

I’m not too sure. All these things you have to have someone who really believes in you to do these things. It’s never just been the artist writing the songs. You have to have a record company that really wants to be with you. We were very fortunate coming up in the years we did by the music men that were part of our lives, people like Sir Edward Lewis and Walt Maguire and Davey Braun and Jerry Weintraub. We had music people who loved what we did and they would be first in line to come and listen to any new songs we made. So if you could replicate that, perhaps we could do something.

What are your memories of joining the Moody Blues after Denny Laine left?

Ray rang me one day and said – he always called me Rocker – he said, “hey, Rocker, have you finished college yet?” I said, “why?” and he said, “Denny’s left, and I’d like it if you came and joined again – let’s get the old band back together.” So when I turned up it was like going back to see my friends again and playing music together, which we’d done before for so long. So it progressed from there… one of the things I didn’t want to do was be in blue suits and perform songs written by other people because I’d done that for five years before. I’d started songwriting and I wanted to perform my own songs.

The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame nod came 50 years after Days of Future Passed was released. How did it come to be?

Decca Records… also built music consoles [and] wanted to make this stereo record to go along with their record players so it could show you how great having two speakers would be. So they came up with this idea of trying to put a pop band and orchestral music together. They wanted to use Dvorak’s Symphony and they asked us if we were interested, because we were signed to them. We had a meeting and talked about Dvorak and then we met Peter Knight. He came along to see us at a concert [and] he said it would be better if we recorded our own songs… we said to [Decca founder] Edward Lewis, “can we have a studio 24 hours a day for a week?” He said yes, and we went into the studio and didn’t allow anyone in there but us. At the end of the week we had a playback for the executives of the record company and all our friends and girlfriends… the record company didn’t know quite what they got or what to do with it, because it wasn’t the sampler type of record that they thought they were getting. But there were two people there – one was Hugh Mendel, who was the head of classical music at Decca Records, and an American guy, Walt Maguire from London Records in New York. They understood what we were trying to do. They became our mentors, really, and kept telling everyone else, “yep, this is it, this is so different” – and then the rest is history, I suppose.

The Moody Blues’ John Lodge

When: Wednesday, Feb. 13, 8 p.m.

Where: Tupelo Music Hall, 10 A St., DerryTickets: $55-$60 at tupelohall.com

Border Song

Alejandro Escovedo brings vital new album to Portsmouth

This story appeared in the 24 January 2019 edition of Hippo Press

When he toured Europe in 2017, Alejandro Escovedo needed a local band. He chose Don Antonio, an all-Italian septet led by guitarist Antonio Gramentieri. The assembled group played 35 shows in 40 days, across 10 countries, and Escovedo called the trip “triumphant.”

The final dates happened on the southern tip of Italy, a place that recalled Escovedo’s Texas roots. “The food was spicier, a lot of it reminded me of Mexican food, the dialect is different and it seemed very economically challenged down there,” he said by phone from a North Carolina tour stop. “They also have a lot of immigrants, coming from Africa.”

That correlation was the spark for a project that resulted in one of last year’s most powerful albums. Made jointly with Don Antonio in the band’s hometown, Escovedo’s 13th album The Crossing explores the immigrant experience through the eyes of two young men; one Mexican, the other Italian. They love punk rock and the idea of America; the latter will come to tragically disappoint them.

It’s an unflinching portrait of the present national moment. The record opens ominously with a tableau of migrants fleeing drug wars and poverty, often colliding with something worse. “There’s danger in the air,” Escovedo sings. “These men who hunt us know nothing of our lives, so please step lightly.”

There are moments of joy, too. “Outlaw for You” and “Sonica USA” are two songs that name check a long list of Escovedo’s heroes, from Johnny Thunders to seminal Mexican-American rockers Thee Midniters. “I wanted the boys to have this aesthetic like when I was growing up and loving these bands,” Escovedo said. “They don’t want arena rock, what they want is the real thing in sweaty clubs and stuff, and all those bands were part of that for me growing up.”

Adding to the punch are guest appearances on the record by The Stooges’ James Williamson, Wayne Kramer of MC5 and other punk heroes. “Wayne is on fire, he’s so great right now,” Escovedo said. “His guitar playing is just masterful and he’s such a great guy; he’s got such positive energy and he’s an activist… the MC5 are a great example of bands that put everything they believe in on the line.”

Prior to recording, Escovedo and Gramentieri traveled through Southern Texas, talking to immigrants and learning their experiences. “It’s through those stories that we began to see what it was really like to be a DREAMer in this time,” he said. The tale that frames “Texas is My Mother” came from young man who paid a hard cost to complete his journey. “He carried his sister across the river… his aunt was behind them, and did not make it.”

Some tracks are personal, like the spoken word “Rio Navidad,” an angry recollection of a racist encounter at a wedding in the 1980s. Escovedo said his songwriting flowed easier because of where The Crossing was produced. “There’s something liberating about making this record in Italy that allowed me to really kind of just say things that I hadn’t said previously, in a way that was a lot more direct and … I guess edgy might be a word for it. It’s not filtered in any way.”

Playing the first dates of The Crossing tour last fall, Escovedo often cribbed from a lyric book while on stage, but that’s changed. “I think at this point it’s definitely hitting our stride and it sounds better than it ever has,” he said, adding “I remember Townes Van Zandt said it took him like a year to really learn the songs that he wrote… it sometimes can be very a emotional release when you finish a record.”

The cross cultural connection of Escovedo and Don Antonio is both brilliant in its result and a rare occurence. “How often do you have a guy from Texas going to Italy to make a record with an all Italian band in an Italian studio and then coming back and presenting it not just as a record, but a statement on the condition of the country as it is now?” Escovedo said. “It’s not something that happens very often. I encourage everyone to come, because I think you come away with not just having seen a rock concert.”

Laugh in the New Year

Six comics help Portsmouth welcome 2019

When comedian Steve Scarfo booked his first New Year’s Eve event in Portsmouth, he was doing what he’d always done. He’d gotten into stand-up in the mid-90s, and was promoting within a few years. “When you start out, you’re really just chasing spots, chasing time,” Scarfo recalled recently. “So we said, ‘why wait around? Let’s do our own shows.’”

So that first First Night, it was Scarfo and few pals; but from those humble beginnings a tradition was born. 2018 marks the 10th anniverary of the Live Free or Die Laughing event, and the stars have aligned to make it memorable. Five comics, led by Jimmy Dunn, will ring out the year with jokes and smiles.

Getting Dunn, who lives in nearby Hampton Beach, is a big deal. A veteran of the Boston comedy scene, he’s known for his role on the CBS sitcom The McCarthys, Red Sox commercials and Comedy Central specials. “I can’t say enough good things about him,” Scarfo enthused. “It makes it a little more special for the 10th anniversary, having someone who’s a local celebrity.”

Feature comic Abhishek Shah, who appeared on NPR’s storytelling series The Moth and is a regular at Laugh Boston and Giggles, precedes Dunn. Also featuring is Mike Whitman, a 10-year comedy veteran who’s been on Fox’s Laughs and headlined The Stone Church in Newmarket last month. Ryan Gartley, who was goaded into comedy by his friends on a Portsmouth booze cruise in 1999, and newcomer Mark Moccia round out the lineup.

Though there are two shows scheduled, but the early one is already sold out. Tickets are still available for the late show at 10:30; $38 admission includes a champagne toast at midnight and party favors. As in each past year, Scarfo will host.

Scarfo got into standup after going to grad school in Virgnia. “A friend of mine said he was going to try it,” he said. “Up to that point I didn’t even know it was something you could do. I always loved comedy; I grew up listening to Bill Cosby. I don’t know if that’s in vogue to say, but his bits were the first thing I memorized. Then came Steven Wright and Robin Williams in high school.”

For his first time out, Scarfo worked up a tight five minutes. He went to the Comedy Vault in Boston – “I brought 30 of my friends to see me, which is kind of crazy in itself” – and killed. Added to this first time fortune was a Boston Globe writer in the audience who was doing a story on new comics. He ended up featuring Scarfo as one of the night’s funniest.

“It was pretty cool but it was also, as the old cliché goes, a blessing and a curse,” he said. “Looking back, I can’t believe I had such a good set on my first time out, but it was also what hooked me. The adrenaline rush of coming on stage and people actually laughing and enjoying it, it’s like the best drug on the planet that you don’t have to pay for.”

Unlike a lot of other comics, the married father of two performs close to home. “I looked around at the guys who were doing comedy, and the full time comics were doing all road work,” he said. “Being in a hotel room, on the road and away from your family wasn’t the life I wanted to have.”

He opened a club in Kittery, Maine that lasted a couple of years. “When that ended up not working out, there was a moment in time where I almost moved to California, but I chose not to do that, or do road trips” he said. “I never even pursued working on cruise ships, though I think it would be a lot of fun… I definitely respect the guys that do it, because not only are they pursuing their dream, there’s personal sacrifice too.”

Live Free or Die Laughing 10th Annual New Year’s Eve Comedy Show

When: Monday, Dec. 31, 10:30 p.m. (8:30 p.m. show is sold out)

Where: Sheraton Portsmouth Harborside Hotel, 250 Market St., Portsmouth

Tickets: $38 at LiveFreeOrDieLaughing.com

Starring Jimmy Dunn, Steve Scarfo, Abhishek Shah, Mike Whitman, Ryan Gartley and Mark Moccia

This story appeared in the 19 December 2019 issue of Seacoast Scene