VSO Makes Its First Stop In Bellows Falls 1 October

When he’d finally convinced the Vermont Symphony Orchestra to bring the annual “Made In Vermont” tour to the Bellows Falls Opera House, says Ray Massucco, “I felt like the dog chasing the car – now what am I gonna do?”

A year of back-and-forth emailing between Massucco, a lawyer and part-time concert promoter, and VSO Executive Director Alan Jordan led to a site visit early this spring.

Jordan was immediately taken by the recently renovated opera house. “I don’t think they were here an hour before Alan said, ‘we’re coming to Bellows Falls this year,’” recalls Ray.  “He told me, ‘this is ideal acoustically for the kind of show we present.’”

So, on Wednesday, October 1, the oldest state-sponsored orchestra in the country will make its first appearance in Bellows Falls, with a musical salute to autumn.  The program includes “Holberg Suite,” Grieg’s Baroque homage to the Danish writer originally written for piano, George Gershwin’s lilting “Lullaby,” and Vivaldi’s masterpiece, “The Four Seasons.”

The centerpiece of the performance is the premiere of “Autumn Rhapsody,” a commissioned piece composed by Pierre Jalbert.

Jalbert grew up in South Burlington, winning regional composition and piano competitions while still in his teens. Later, he studied at Oberlin Conservatory and earned a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania.  Most recently, Jalbert was awarded the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s 2007 Stoeger Award, given biennially “in recognition of significant contributions to the chamber music repertory.”

Currently, Jalbert serves as an Associate Professor at Rice University, where he’s taught since 1996.

The show began as a labor of love, but as it started to gel, Ray Massucco saw an opportunity to meld it with another big part of his community work, the Rockingham Free Public Library.  He chaired the organization for many years, and recently stepped down to become secretary, and head up the library’s Centennial Committee.

He realized the show corresponded almost perfectly with another important event in the town’s history.

“This concert is 100 years to the week of the day we laid the cornerstone for the library – October 8, 1908,” says Massucco. With that in mind, he decided the concert should kick off a year of celebration, in advance of marking the centennial of the building’s official opening, in November of 1909.”

“The inaugural concert of the VSO in BF kicks off the centennial year,” says Massucco.  “It really brings it all together.”

He’s faced significant challenges organizing such a large undertaking.  For starters, there are 35 musicians to house and feed.  There’s marketing for an event that’s worlds away from the “Roots on the River” Americana music festival he’s been staging since 2007, or the occasional shows he promotes at Boccelli’s on the Canal.

Realizing that, under the best of circumstances, he’d only make back 60 percent of the show’s costs – that was when he most felt like the dog catching the car.

Massucco has succeeded in courting underwriters for the show, “Angels” paying up to $500 a ticket to defray his expenses.  He’s also sold many second-tier underwriter tickets, which include a pre-show reception with Pierre Jalbert and VSO conductor Jaime Laredo.

Laredo will both conduct and play violin.  Classical neophyte Massucco said, “I had no idea how famous he is everywhere else.” The Bolivian-born musical prodigy began his musical career at age five, and has recorded with Isaac Stern, Yo-Yo Ma, and Emanuel Ax, as well as collaborating with Glenn Gould.

“It’s been steep learning curve, but I’m getting excited,” says Massucco. In typical fashion, he’s already looking towards the future.  “I asked them, ‘if I sell out the house, will you come back next year?’”

“They said, ‘if you sell out the house, we will be back next year.”

Mark Erelli Comes To Fred Fest With A Great New CD

Thursday, June 5 will be a return of sorts for Mark Erelli. “It feels like coming back to visit old friends,” says the singer-songwriter, who performed at Oona’s and the Windham when they were both open.

Erelli opens the ninth annual “Fred Fest,” four days of music officially called Roots on the River, with a set at the newly remodeled Bellows Falls Opera House. He’ll play songs from his forthcoming album, then join Lori McKenna’s band for her headliner set, something he’s been doing for the past few years.

Usually, he sticks to backing McKenna, a task that last year found him in front of thousands of Tim McGraw and Faith Hill concert fans and national television audiences, and in support of her “Unglamorous” album. But with a new record to promote, Erelli’s doing double duty.

“These nights are really hectic for me,” he says. “I have to activate different parts of my brain as a solo player and a sideman.”

The new album, called “Delivered,” is due for release later this summer, though fans can buy it at a few select preview shows. It’s a work that Erelli considers to be the high point of his 10-year career; a deft blending of the topical and personal.

“It’s like ‘Hope and Other Casualties,’ only more so,” he says, though it’s imbued with a sense of optimism that was missing from his last album of new songs two years ago. He isn’t pulling his punches, whether denouncing a president “who’d rather talk to Jesus than those who disagree” or lamenting history’s courageous leaders who were “rewarded with a bullet to the brain,” but Erelli seems to have more faith that things will turn out well.

The title of the record’s opening track, for example, is “Hope Dies Last.” In it, Erelli bookends the world’s problems – floods, fear and tyrants – with his own domestic bliss. The buoyant “Once” celebrates the birth of his first child, an event that informs much of the record’s mood.

“There’s a certain amount of bravery and fearlessness that you have to have as an independent artist,” he says. “You also have to be a little crazy. Parenting reinforces that.”

The album’s centerpiece is the title song, a haunting, gorgeous meditation of enduring love. With a beautiful counterpoint from Crooked Still vocalist Aoife O’Donovan, “Delivered” is an elegy wrapped with a sense of wonder, stark in mood and deceptively simple in structure.

For the project, Erelli used a new producer and a group of musicians he’d long admired, but never played with. “This record is unique in that I came to it with fewer preconceived notions than anything I’ve done.”

He borrowed his studio band, including producer Zack Hickman, from former label mate Josh Ritter. “I was lucky to be able to import a certain amount of musical chemistry right off the bat, even though we didn’t know each other when we started,” says Erelli. “It was a very easy, unforced process.”

He’d made five records with long-time collaborator Lorne Entress, but felt he needed a change. “We had and still have a great relationship, but we got to the point where we’d done so many things,” he says. “It seemed like a good time to broaden my horizons.”

With financing locked in, and a heady period of his life winding down, Erelli began work on “Delivered” feeling loose, and ready for anything,

“I’d just gotten of the Tim/Faith tour, we had our baby and two weeks later I went into the studio. I didn’t have the energy to be stressed out by what were we going for. I had a group of songs I felt strongly about, I knew we had a great group of musicians. I kind of trusted that was going to be enough. I think we came up with my best record to date, and I never thought I’d be able to say that seven records in.”

“Delivered” was made through a creative financing scheme that Erelli dubbed a “musical barn raising.” “I got a bunch of fans to contribute all different kinds of money and basically paid for the project in advance,” he says.

Backers included old college friends, long time fans and supporters, some of whom he knew well, and others he didn’t. When he began advertising for investors early in 2007, Erelli was unsure of what kind of response he’d receive. He wound up with more money than he’d planned on in less time than anticipated.

He found the experience both gratifying and artistically liberating, and something he’d happily do again. The approach, he says, “relies on something real, the people that actually know they want my record, as opposed to investing all kinds of funds up front from a record company.”

For their contributions, each “barn raiser” received an early copy of “Delivered,” along with posters, unreleased tracks and other goodies.

Erelli recalls performing at one of the earliest Fred Eaglesmith weekends, in 2001. “It makes no sense at all,” he says. “Fred’s great, and there’s many people that deserve their own festival booked around them, but to see in this one little town in Vermont that has fallen for him and draws people from all around the world to do this event. I call it blissfully random. It works – I’m glad it does, and grateful to be a part of it.”

Local Rhythms – Remember The Name Trixie Whitley

You should have been there.

When Ray Massucco walked on stage to introduce the first performer at Saturday’s Chris Whitley tribute, he remarked that co-promoter Charlie Hunter wasn’t around. “I think he’s out selling tickets,” Ray told the crowd, which filled maybe a third of the Bellows Falls Opera House.

I have to confess, somewhat sheepishly, that Whitley’s music didn’t touch me as much as his reputation. I knew he could play the hell out of the National Steel guitar, and that his songs came from a very real place.

I was aware that his brother Dan shared the family talents. I’d heard that Chris’s daughter caught the performing bug at a young age. Her MySpace demos reminded me a bit of Missy Higgins or Beth Orton.

None of this knowledge prepared me for the raw emotional power of Trixie Whitley’s performance. The 20-year old acted wan and tentative when she walked on stage, but seemed to gather her strength with each song.

By the end of her set, she owned everyone in the building.

The final verse of her closing number sent a chill down my spine:

“Mama’s got strong blood, Papa’s got strong blood, I learned to survive with that same strong blood”

Trixie was 15 when she wrote “Strong Blood.” Two years later, cancer killed her father. I can’t fathom the courage it took to sing those words to an audience of adoring Chris Whitley fans. She obviously struggled to get through it; her visible pain made it all the more powerful.

“She’s grown up this weekend,” Ray Massucco told me as Trixie left the stage and Dan Whitley launched into his set (solo on a National guitar, no less).

Her potent performance raised the bar for everyone that followed.

Trixie returned to the stage at the start of Vernon Reid’s set to sing backup on “Serve You.” With Dan’s encouragement, she took the lead, and ferociously embraced one of her dad’s best songs.

“Thank you and goodnight,” Reid wisecracked.

“I feel like I should set myself on fire now,” said Alejandro Escovedo, who closed the show.

As things turned out, he did play an incendiary set. “That was worth twenty bucks right there,” one fan commented.

I wish I’d paid more attention to Chris’s music while he was alive. His legacy is in good hands; I suppose that’s a comfort. I can’t wait for next year’s show.

OK, what do we have to look forward to this week?

Wednesday: Jimmy Eat World w/ Paramore, Tsongas Arena – Much of what’s right with the music world can be found here – multiple band shows by young rockers designed to showcase up and coming talent along with the headliner. Young fans may not buy lots of CDs, but they do shell out for T-shirts, buttons and reasonably priced concert tickets.

Thursday: Michael Zsoldos & Draa Hobbs, Elixir – It’s jazz night in White River Junction. Hobbs ia a versatile guitarist who sounds best when he’s summoning of the spirits of masters like Wes Montgomery and Kenny Burrell. Zsoldos plays saxophone, and has an impressive resume that includes a PBS documentary score, but kids know him as Woodstock High’s band director.

Friday: Sean Rowe, Salt hill Pub – Lebanon’s cultural exchange with Albany, New York continues. Rowe one-ups fellow Albanian duo Sirsy, a regular favorite of both Salt hills, by playing blues-infused rock all by his lonesome, with the support of a sound and sample machine. Perhaps that should be “one downs.” This talented guitarist has the skills to match the pub’s energy, and a voice that sounds more Mississippi than Hudson River delta.

Saturday: Salsa Dancing, Gusanoz – Cinco de Mayo is to this place what St. Patrick’s Day is to most Irish pubs, an excuse to celebrate all week long. Tonight features Hall of Fame nominee DJ Spin Doctor, who gives a mid-evening dance lesson (rose for clenching between teeth not included), and plays selections from his impressive, and authentic, Salsa library.

Sunday: Herricks Cove Wildlife Festival, Rockingham – Spring has been a long time coming. Local singer/guitarist Jesse Peters, who also hosts the first Friday open mike at McKinley’s in Springfield, is the musical guest for a day that celebrates the natural beauty of this spot along the Connecticut River. There are fly-fishing demonstrations, live owls and reptiles, and an actor portraying John James Audubon. Take I-91 Exit 6 to reach Herricks Cove.

Tuesday: Acoustic Coalition, Murphy Farm – This loose affiliation embodies the Upper Valley scene. Most of the players at this weekly Quechee jam session gig with other bands, some with several. Listen to Acoustic Coalition recordings on yellowhousemedia.com, my favorite website for local music, for a sense of the inspired fun that transpires. You should check out the site for all the great area talent there.

Limited Edition Local Music

exsubel_logo.jpgFrom Exsubel Records, a fine local label:

This past year, our recording studio (Exsubel Recordings) took to the road to record several live shows. Two of them are special to us and we wanted to tell you about them.
The first is a bell choir from the town of Newfane Vermont. In December of 2006, we recorded the town bell choir perfoming sounds of the Holidays. The evening event features free presents, meals and then the performance – all free of charge to the community.

The Second is a show that occured at Fall Mountain High School this past Spring. The event was a benefit for Alex’s Lemonade Stand – a not for profit organization that raises money for childhood cancer research. On hand were Second Wind, Smoke and Mirrors, Sun King and Stonewall – all volunteering their time for this great cause.

Exsubel is selling 100 copies of each event. All proceeds go directly back to the respective cause. If you are interested in a copy please contact us. Samples of each event will be uploaded within the week.

Dar Williams Plans BF Farmer’s Market Benefit 4/27

dar-williams-and-jackson-brownep.jpgFolksinger Dar Williams does her part for a local cause next Friday, when she performs at the Bellows Falls Opera House in support of their farmer’s market.

David Francey, a Canadian singer-songwriter who’s built a following through several area performances, opens the show. The Bellows Falls Farmers Market will host a reception in the lobby prior to the concert.

The market, which officially opens May 18, provides a comfortable environment for fruit and vegetable growers from the surrounding counties to sell their wares. It features crafts, canned good, as well as some great local music. Upcoming performers include the Little Hope String Band, Josh Maiocc, Julie Waters, Patrick Fitzsimmons and Jesse Peters.

Show promoter Ray Massucco pitched the benefit idea to Williams at her New Year’s Even show in Northampton. She readily agreed.

“Dar has always been supportive of community-based agriculture,” says Charlie Hunter of Flying Under Radar, who is co-promoting the show with Massucco. It doesn’t hurt that Hunter managed Williams early in her career, and that the two have remained friends. But her commitment to activist causes runs deep in any case.

Many of her songs reflect her political beliefs, from the anti-war sentiments in “Empire,” from her last album, to “Play the Greed,” perhaps the most eloquent ode to green capitalism ever written. It was part of the “Hempliations II” anthology a few years back.

All the while, she’s donated her time to a myriad of interests and issues.

In 2005, she sponsored a group of Dartmouth students who traveled the country promoting alternative energy in a french fry oil-powered vehicle dubbed “The Big Green Bus.” While on tour in support of her most recent album, “My Better Self,” Dar’s “Echoes Initiative” would choose a local charity in each city she played. At her Burlington, Vermont show, fans donating to the Chittenden Food Bank received passes to a post-show meeting with the songwriter.

Last month, she peformed at an anti-war teach-in, and in support of an Ossinning, New York education foundation. Tomorrow, she plays a private concert in conjunction with an event at Harvard’s “God-Free Chaplaincy” honoring the writer Salman Rushdie, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen and scientiest E.O. Wilson, among others.

“I expect I’ll receive a very nice tote bag,” quips Williams, never at a loss for levity.

The Farmer’s market show was, Dar says, a natural choice for her.

“I finally realized that local food groups and community gardens provide an approachable microcosm of all the global issues I support,” Williams said in a statement on her web site.

“Also,” she adds, tongue in cheek, “supporting community gardens means –dude!– a lot of free food on the road.”

Weekend Review

boccellis.JPGIt felt like a fall evening in Bellow Falls last Friday, with a smattering of rain and overflowing cheer at Boccelli’s on the Canal. As Josh Maiocco took the stage, I was reminded why the scene there is so compelling. Josh played a couple of his original songs, then remarked, “it’s great to have an … audience.” Guys like Josh (and co-headliner Jesse Peters, and Colin McCaffrey, Jason Cann, Chris Kleeman) play songs which deserve to be heard, yet too often suffer the indignity of being background music. Not in BF, where Boccelli’s fans sat and paid attention.

Charlie Hunter, who came out of retirement to present shows for Boccelli’s, introduced the performers and also confirmed that the tentative Dave Alvin & the Lonely Men show is now confirmed for February 1. I haven’t seen Charlie looking so chuffed in a long time.

Also in attendance was Ezra Veitch, who had plans to leave the area for Arkansas last fall that “fell through.” Ezra’s been out of action due to a hand injury that’s fortunately now on the mend. He told me he’s mixing a Mr. Burns album; he also said it won’t be heard on MySpace. “I don’t like their policies,” he said, referring to the social networking site’s willingness to allow pages from “artists” who are really fans. This situation is benign sometimes – Shana Morrisonwas “surprised” to find out she had a MySpace page neither she nor her management set up, but professed that it stayed up to date and was basically a good tool for her fans. Not so in Ezra’s case.

I was only able to stick around for Josh’s set, but I did see a Josh/Jesse duet that was pretty good. Josh is s very talented songwriter, and line from one of his songs sort of summed up the night for me:

“It’s winter then it’s spring and now it’s winter/there should be a name for the season in between”

That’s the way the weather is, and that’s the way Bellows Falls has been, never letting the twin devastation of a big venue’s closing and the fire at Oona’s kill their spirit. A mostly packed house helped celebrate the return of spring to one of the area’s vital musical homes.

Later, I headed back to Claremont to catch Al Alessi and Bill Wightman’s second set at Sophie & Zeke’s. Bill’s looking forward to the next JOSA show, and both he and Al are exicited about January 20 at the Newport Opera House. Though the show’s being advertised as the Al Alessi Band, it’s really a full-band version of what Al and Bill do the first Monday of every month in Claremont – a dip into the Great American Songbook with a healthy dose of jazz. It’s a huge hit at Sophie & Zeke’s, and I’m sure it will wow the crowd in Newport.

I wasn’t able to get to Bistro Nouveau for Jason Cann’s Saturday set, but I assure you that he was a crowd pleaser. I took some guests to the Shana Morrison show December 29; Jason opened, and at least two of the women there wanted more Jason. Mr. Cann’s original songs are quite good. “Inside Information,” in particular, is timely, topical and soulful. He also does some clever covers – he re-worked Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold” in a different key with a slowed down tempo and exposed a part of the song I’d not seen before.

Jason plays open mike at the cramped and often indifferent Skunk Hollow every Wednesday, and most every Friday in Ascutney.

Speaking of Ascutney, the next big show there is the duo of Barry Goudreau (Boston) and James Montgomery. I hope they do it in a different room than the Crow’s Nest, which is IMHO unsuitable for concerts. Background music, maybe, but if you actually want to concentrate on the band, there’s nary a good vantage point anywhere.

I also heard a rumor that there may be an outdoor CSN show in the summer. We’ll wait and see on that one.

Bellows Falls Bounces Back

boccellis.jpgFor Charlie Hunter, 2007 was supposed to be about painting and trains. The Bellows Falls impresario handed major responsibilities for the four-day Roots on the River festival to a new manager. He made plans to run his downtown art gallery, and his concert production business was going to be limited to organizing a few music and rails excursions. Other than that, he was going to take it easy.

“Everything is cyclical, and we had a really great run for a while,” says Hunter.

Hunter and his company, Flying Under Radar, played a key role in Bellows Falls’ recent renaissance. Beginning six years ago with shows at Oona’s Restaurant, and by 2004 in the more capacious Hotel Windham lobby, the sleepy village was transformed into a Mecca for music fans. The downtown filled with galleries, funky stores and other diversions.

With the one-two punch of the Windham’s July 2006 closing and a fire two months later that destroyed Oona’s, things looked bleak – but not over. PK’s Tavern continued its weekly open mike night, and Julie Waters’ “Second Sunday Song Circle” at the Exner Block is still going strong. But for a town used to big names like Chris Smither, Amy Rigby and Tanya Donnelly (who recorded a live album at the Windham in 2004), it wasn’t quite the same.

So a one-two counterpunch – the aforementioned Hunter and restaurateur Sharon Boccelli, who opened “Boccelli’s on the Canal” café and deli last spring – responded. Boccelli also runs an auction house in the space adjoining her restaurant, and she approached Hunter about using it for shows.

“I didn’t want to see all the momentum that we’d built up [with live music] disappear,” says Hunter. “So I came out of retirement.”

This Friday, a joint appearance by Jesse Peters and Josh Maiocco, dubbed the “Saxtons River Smackdown,” kicks off the “Bellows Falls: Where Live Music Lives” series. Peters, a singer and guitar player, headlined one of the Windham’s final shows, and was a sort of one-man house band at Springfield’s Morningstar Café before it closed. Maiocco took over the helm at PK’s after serving as lead guitarist for the much-missed Ingrid’s Ruse.

Other Boccelli’s shows in the works include a (tentative) February 1 appearance by roots rocker Dave Alvin and his band, the Guilty Men. Also “close to 100 percent confirmed,” says Hunter, are upcoming sets from the Hunger Mountain Boys, Richard Shindell, Tom Russell, James Keelaughan, Australian guitarist Jeff Lang, and the 2nd Annual Chris Whitley Memorial show on March 3, which will feature the late singer/songwriter’s brother Dan Whitley.

Hunter has committed five months to the effort and helped secure seed money from the Bellows Falls Downtown Development Alliance. “They wanted to see live music keep going,” he says.

Hunter adds that he’s grooming someone to take over promotion responsibilities when he steps aside. “There’s a guy in town who is very eager to learn about how one presents stuff, and he’s sort of serving as my intern. My hope is that after May, he can step up to the plate. “

“But I’ve got my old team in place,” says Hunter.

The group running things, including stage manager Patrick LeBlanc, will be familiar to most Windham fans. “We’ve got such a rich, deep talent pool, we’re really lucky,” says Hunter. Local record producer (and former Ingrid’s Ruse drummer) Seamus Martin will handle the sound, assisted by Maiocco on the nights he’s not playing.

The pairing of Boccelli’s and a re-formed Flying Under Radar makes complete sense, Hunter explained in a recent press release. “It’s a natural. Sharon serves great food, has a beer and wine license, is really into supporting local events … how could we not do some shows there?”

“What’s great about the space is that its capacity is 100; the Windham was 49,” Hunter added Wednesday. “There’s no way we could have done Dave Alvin at the Windham, the ticket would have to be 60 bucks.”

You can’t keep a good town down, and this Friday Bellows Falls resumes its role as an area cultural magnet. About that, the village’s strongest proponent is more than effusive.

“We’re gonna kick serious butt,” says Hunter.