Richard Shindell’s Literary Touch

picture-182Few musicians possess the literary voice of Richard Shindell. His songs read like short stories, with an eye for detail and a knack for parable that would please fans of Raymond Carver or Flannery O’Connor.

The folksinger’s sixth album of originals (Not Far Now, Signature Sounds) is again full of well-drawn characters with tales to tell.  Among the cast are a juggler, a beaten small-time thief, a woman selling empanadas and beer from a roadside stand and a struggling junkie.

Shindell both writes and reads with equal mastery.  He memorably put his stamp on James Keelaghan’s “Cold Missouri Waters” with the folk supergroup Cry Cry Cry.  He covered Bruce Springsteen, Jeffrey Foucault, Bob Dylan and others on his last studio album (“South Of Delia”).

On his new album, Shindell updates Paul McCartney’s “She’s Leaving Home” – the product, he says, of reading Sir Paul’s biography (he calls him  “a musical hero”), and a “two-week Beatles listening binge.”

In the song (“Bye-Bye”), Shindell imagines two very different endings for the family in the Sgt. Pepper’s track.   One is stoic – “on every life some rain must fall/but that doesn’t mean we let the roses go” – another despairing, with doors askew and gardens gone to seed.

With a writer’s omnipotence, he toys with bringing the wayward daughter “back to them with a few strokes of this fountain pen,” before handing the song back to McCartney.

“That’s not how this story ends,” he sings finally.

“Providing that story with a resounding conclusion would be false and graceless,” says Shindell.

Asked if he’s ever tempted to revisit the stories in his own songs, Shindell says he tried what he terms a “kind of amplification of a character” from his first album for the title track of his third.

He pictured the woman waiting for her husband to return from war in “Reunion Hill” as the same person referred to as ‘Mama’ in “Arrowhead” (from “Sparrow’s Point”).

“The narrator of that song is a child-soldier in the Civil War who is addressing his mother (perhaps in a letter, perhaps just in his mind),” explains Shindell.  “However.  “Reunion Hill” seemed to work better if she was searching for her husband rather than her son.”

“But now you’ve got me thinking about other potential follow-up songs,” says Shindell.  “So thanks for the question. It might prove fruitful.”

Are the first person narratives dominating Richard Shindell’s work the product of a frustrated novelist?  Perhaps.

“I get vertigo writing prose,” he says.  “Too many directions, too much open space. Perhaps agoraphobia would be a better description of the sensation. But I would very much like to get over that block and write something other than songs.”

Though born in New Jersey, Shindell has for the past several years lived in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  Digital technology helped bridge the divide between the expatriate and the musicians he worked with on “Not Far Now.”

Shindell and co-producer Greg Anderson recorded basic tracks in his dining room and sent them off to bassist Viktor Krauss, drummer Steve Holley, original E Street Band keyboard player David Sancious and others, who recorded their parts..

“The entire process, from beginning to end is a series of happy accidents,” says Shindell.  String player Sara Milonovich’s contribution stands as one of the happiest.

“I thought she was going to add a fiddle – that is, one,” he says.  “Instead she sat down in a room one day and laid down an entire string arrangement, just to see what would happen. It was a total surprise, and I was thrilled.”

“But I prefer it that way,” he continues.  “I’d rather hear what a particular musician’s take on a song is before giving them too much direction.  And there’s never any harm done if they come up with something totally wrong (which hardly ever happens).”

After all, he says, ”we’re not using actual magnetic tape anymore, everything is fungible, plastic, and wide open for revision and editing.”

Shindell plays bass, acoustic and electric guitar on the record, along with piano and bouzouki.  Shindell likes the 8-stringed, teardrop shaped guitar. “As the Irish discovered well, it’s a great instrument for accompanying the human voice. It also produces a very persistent, driving kind of sound, which I find generates a certain energy in an arrangement.”

Shindell is a regular Northeast Kingdom habitué.  “I generally feel very comfortable playing for a Vermont audience,” he says.  “They’re very attentive, without being – how shall I say this? – too pious.”

However, the live album he made two years ago in Randolph had less to do with his love for the state than the Chandler Music Hall’s superior acoustics and a good recording engineer Shindell hired for the night.

He adds that one other thing factored in.  “That night in Vermont I announced from the stage that I’d be recording and that anyone present could purchase a CD in advance. Once I had taken their money, I had to come through!”

Richard Shindell @ Boccelli’s on the Canal
Bellows Falls, Vermont
25 March – 7:00 PM
Tickets – $24 (front row “Angel” seats $35)

Local Rhythms – Live Free Or Die

lrnewsmall.jpgAdapted from a previous post

There’s nothing like seeing your town on the big screen, and for many in attendance at the “Live Free Or Die” premiere Monday night at the Claremont Cinema, that was the main draw.  It isn’t for all tastes; there are more F-bombs in the film’s 90 minutes than a lot of the audience had probably heard their entire lives.

But seeing Shirley’s Donut Shop and Lambert Supply on the big screen made it all worthwhile.

The film’s profanity may be shocking, but that’s the way a real guy like fast-talking loser John “Rugged” Rudgate would operate.   To their credit, co-directors (and former “Seinfeld” writers) Greg Kavet and Andy Robin didn’t flinch when creating him, and Aaron Stanford’s star turn as Rugged is, to use the character’s favorite phrase, “shit hot.”

The small-time criminal blusters with every breath, plotting low-margin scams and paying his rent with ill-gotten rebate checks. All the while, a real crime wave grows around him in a seemingly parallel universe; it’s a neighborhood that Rugged will, of course, ultimately stumble into – and at just the wrong time.

Stanford’s good, but Paul Schneider (”Family Stone,” “Elizabethtown”) is even better, quietly stealing scene after scene as Lagrand, Rugged’s dimwitted sidekick.  With each toss of his hair, Schneider gives the film a “Napoleon Dynamite” meets “Blood Simple” charm.  It has the Coen Brothers’ sensibilities, but without the wood chipper that turned happy-go-lucky “Fargo” into Midwestern Gothic.

Contributions from top-notch character actors like Judah Friedlander (”American Splendor”), who has a memorable turn as a foul-mouthed hardware store owner, and Ultimate Fight Club wannabe Alex Gazaniga, played with equal parts stupid and sinister by Ebon Moss-Bachrach (”Mona Lisa Smile”), could well lift “Live Free or Die” from a cult sensation (it won Best Narrative at the last years SXSW) to a solid smash on a par with “Clerks” or “Garden State.” The writing’s certainly good enough, and the performances are dead-on.

I only wish Zooey Deschanel (”Elf,” “Failure to Launch”) had gotten more on-screen time as Lagrand’s sister Cheryl.  She’s apparently the only competent adult who isn’t a police officer in the fictional town of Rutland, New Hampshire (Rutland? THAT bit of dramatic license sure drew some chortles Monday night).

What I’m ultimately saying is that you should go see “Live Free or Die” when it opens tomorrow – not just because it was filmed in Claremont.

See it because it’s a shit hot funny movie.  Now, what else is going on this weekend?

Thursday: Jason Cann, Brown’s Tavern – Sadly, this in-demand singer/guitarist’s busy schedule precluded him from playing a farewell set at Claremont’s Bistro Nouveau.  He’ll be performing at the new locations in Springfield and Eastman later in the month.  Jason’s built quite an Ascutney following with his easy on the ears catalog of songs that include the Dead, Dave Matthews and Dan Loggins.

Friday: Roland Yamaguchi Band, Sophie & Zeke’s – The music lineup at downtown Claremont’s favorite dinner spot changes a bit in the coming weeks.  Tonight, it’s a reconfigured New Kind of Blue, sans vocalist Emily Lanier.  There are some new faces in April, including upcoming Thursday dinner sets from the Norm Wolfe/Peter Concilio duo, and Draa Hobbs with sax player Michael Zsoldos.

Saturday:  George’s Back Pocket, Boccelli’s on the Canal – Listening to Rutland singer/guitarist George “G.V.” Nostrand’s music on his web site, I’m reminded of bluegrass skiffle bands like Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks or Asleep at the Wheel.  Nostrand played and recorded a well-received set at the Windham before it closed last year.   Tonight, he’s at Bellows Falls’ newest music venue.

Sunday: Green Mountain Shuffle, Middle Earth Music Hall – Since we’re discussing indie films, it’s worth mentioning the first movie from Vermont musician and writer Michael T. Hahn, which gets a 2 PM screening today.  Starring Heather Fitch, Adam Desautels and Derek Campbell, “Green Mountain Shuffle” is described as “an unforgettable tale of passion, deceit and redemption.”  It also features performances by Hahn’s eponymous band.

Tuesday: Taylor Hicks/Toby Lightman, Avalon (Boston) – As the current “American Idol” circus lurches through another season, last year’s winner proves there’s no guarantee of success beyond the title.  He’s no Carrie Underwood in the record sales department, and the Avalon isn’t the EnormoDome either.  The best thing about this show is Toby Lightman, the Philly chanteuse who could have been an Idol if she’d wanted to.

Wednesday: Lunasa, Chandler Music Hall – Randolph, Vermont’s jewel of an opera house was born from, of all things, a church merger in 1907.  Renovated in the 1970s, it’s hosted both local and international talent. Tonight, it’s a fine Celtic band, rich in tradition but with state of the art playing skills.  It features members of the Waterboys, Donal Lunny’s Coolfin and the Riverdance band.

Local Rhythms – Ditch The Arenas

cheatseats.jpgPeople will line up to see Bob Seger until the day he can’t remember the words to “Rock and Roll Never Forgets.” Why wouldn’t they? He’s a working class hero who can play guys half his age under the table.

The fifth song Seger performed last Saturday night in Boston was “Old Time Rock and Roll.” There are but a handful of players with deep enough catalogs to drop such a big number that early and still be able to deliver more. He did – gems like “Turn the Page,” “Night Moves” and “Against the Wind.”

Barring a miracle, the next time I hear any of those songs, it’ll be a bar band playing them. I’ve had my fill of the cynical business that’s turned rock and roll into a commodity, and its most passionate fans into dupes. Music was never meant to be played in a cavernous barn like the TD Banknorth Garden – or whatever it’s called next week (they really should fasten sponsor names to the building with Velcro).

But here’s the worst of it. Last November I bought tickets the moment they went on sale. For nearly 200 dollars, I got two seats in the last row of the top balcony – barely in the same zip code. Like most arena concerts, every ticket sold for the same price. Show promoter Live Nation must figure star struck fans will pay anything, and won’t care where they sit.

If you did care, Live Nation had the answer. In the middle of December, Ticketmaster (their parent company), sent an email offering me really, really good seats, which they’d kept from retail sale. All I had to do was pay three times face value at auction.

Lately, Ticketmaster is pushing for legislation to outlaw ticket reselling operations like StubHub and EBay, but that’s just so they can have a monopoly on scalping.

I’ve got nothing against making money, but I’m opting out of this game. There’s plenty of good live music that doesn’t require me to bring cotton for nosebleeds, or do business with the Ticketmaster mafia.

I don’t believe for a second that my small protest will dent the ambitions of, say, Van Halen, who still hate each other but are going out this summer to milk their minions. Nor will it slow down the Police’s upcoming Stewart Copeland Annuity Tour, or stop Mick Jagger from making his child support payments.

No matter. To paraphrase Joni Mitchell – if you want me, I’ll be in the bars. Speaking of which:

Thursday: Dave Alvin & The Guilty Men, Boccelli’s – Great music lives in Bellows Falls, and this is one of the best “gets” in a long time. Alvin fronted the Blasters and played with mid-80’s punk standard bearers X as well. Lately, he’s putting his own special stamp on Americana. The West Coast native’s latest project is compilation of California songwriters. He’s comfortable in Bakersfield, South Central, and all points in between.

Friday: Comedy Connection with Mike Siscoe, Electra – At this West Lebanon nightspot, first Fridays are all about comedy. Siscoe’s material ranges from familiar topics like teenage hormones and novel attention disorder treatments (hint: they’re not legal), to character bits featuring the public access show “Hookah Time,” with a Borat-type host and cheesy production values. It’s pretty funny stuff.

Saturday: Stonewall, Christophe’s (Ludlow) – Oops, I had Peter Pidgeon and Arcoda listed here, but it’s actually next week.  Since both the Heritage and Stonewall are Martin Hansen joints, I’ll replace my mistake with a plug for the best power trio in the Twin State region, and maybe points beyond.  Check out their MySpace site to listen to their latest Exsubel Records release.

Sunday: Josh Ritter, Latchis Theatre (Brattleboro) – A star in Ireland, he’s finally starting to catch fire stateside. Ritter has matinee idol looks, a wildly infectious voice, and catchy songs. Really, he’s the whole package. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if this show sells out, even if it is Super Bowl Sunday. Dejected Patriots fans looking to pick up their sorrows could do a whole lot worse than this. Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers, a singer-songwriter led combo from Boston, open the show.

Monday: Opening Day, Salt hill 2 – The town of Newport has waited patiently for this night, and the Tuohy brothers will undoubtedly deliver the same blend of charm, service and comfort food that’s won them a loyal clientèle on the Lebanon Green. Josh and Joe say they chose Monday for a “medium” opening, but my guess is they won’t be holding much back. Live music will be coming – but not tonight. You’ll know when I do.