Local Rhythms – Short and Sweet

I may have found an answer to the nagging question of what’s ailing today’s music.


Harper’s Index recently reported that the average word count of a Top 10 hit in the 1960s was 176; last year, it nearly tripled to 436.

Stop – in the name of brevity.

In 2007 it was  “Irreplaceable,” a 552-word behemoth, according to my non-scientific computer word counter, that topped the pop charts.

You probably knew Beyonce’s number one hit as “To the Left,” which is part of another problem. Hidden song titles have bugged me since the Who made “Baba O’Riley.”

But at least I can type “Teenage Wasteland” to steal it off the Internet, and it’s only 94 words long.

Perhaps it’s the Flynn effect – the theory that each generation gains intelligence over the last, that’s behind this word bloat; a trend that, if unchecked, will contribute to global warming.

But I think it’s an inversion of that idea: the less there is to say about something, the more it takes to say it.

Whatever it is, the tunes on the radio remind me of a fast food baked potato.  There’s so much extra stuff that it’s inedible.

I know you’re probably thinking I’m picking on rappers, but this started way before Jay-Z.  For example, I’ve yet to hear anyone besides Eddie Vedder sing all the words to a Pearl Jam song.

Let’s go even further back than that – what on earth was Michael Stipe mumbling through most of the 80s?  Learning how to sing along to 90 percent of REM’s songs was like studying for the SAT’s.

Like most tests, I forgot half of it the next day.

Whatever happened to verse, chorus, verse, bridge and chorus – three-minute songs you knew by heart before they even ended?

Can I get a witness?

Country music doesn’t have this problem, which probably explains why it’s the only music genre showing any growth among new artists.  There’s no one pithier than Kenny Chesney, whose hooks (“I’m better as a memory than as your man”) get stuck in your head like kudzu on a wall.

Ditto for Sugarland, Taylor Swift, Little Big Town or Carrie Underwood – all acts that broke through this century with short, sweet, sing-able songs.

It isn’t a memory if you can’t remember the words.

Here’s a few memories-to-be:

Thursday: John Gorka, Colburn Park – Gorka writes literate songs, rooted in place and time.  “Houses In The Field” looks at the costs of progress; on “Bottles Break” he crawls inside the mind of a denizen who wants nothing more than “to buy this town and keep it rough.”  “Mean Streak” would have been a smash hit if John Mellencamp recorded it. I could go on, but you should see him and get it for yourself. Heck, it’s a free show.

Friday: Northeast Kingdom Music Festival, Chilly Ranch – Eschewing the all-jam band motif, this festival (now in its sixth year) gathers together a wide variety of musical worlds.  There’s avant-funk from Screaming Headless Torsos, the Dixieland-fueled Primate Fiasco, improvisational jazz from Vorzca, chaotic Klezmer from local heroes the Pariah Beat, and the Americana of Rusty Belle.  Two days of music (there’s a complete schedule at nekmf.com) for a modest price.

Saturday: Barnful of Blues Festival, New Boston  – You’ll recognize a few of the names playing at this all day festival a few miles south of Weare.  Both Roxanne and the Voodoo Rockers and Arthur James have strong local followings, and Bruce Marshall touches down frequently.  Add to that the Love Dogs, TJ Wheeler and seven other New England area bands, and you’ve got the makings of a great day.

Sunday: David Sicilia, Canoe Club – I have no idea what he sounds like – Great American Songbook, apparently – but his list of prerequisites is a hoot.  “Available for retirement homes, alumni reunions (aged 70+), Bingo halls, and 50th anniversary celebrations,” says his press kit.  All he needs is a decent piano that’s, get this, ”in the same room as the event in question” – gotta love humility like that.

Tuesday: American Folk Music Lecture, Norwich Library – Bluegrass veteran Ford Daley, who ran a well-reviewed workshop at last year’s Upper Valley Bluegrass festival, talks about this history of folk music with an emphasis on the Sixties, a decade he knew well (despite David Crosby’s admonition that if you could remember it you probably weren’t there).  The lecture features vintage recordings along with performances by Daley and friends.  The event is free.

Wednesday: The Panhandlers, Lyman Point Park – The large (20-member) steel drum band from VISTA, the Vermont Independent School of the Arts, plays a free show along the White River.  If it rains, the music moves indoors to the Bugbee Senior Center, but wherever they end up playing, your mind will be transported to a palm frond-laden tropical paradise, complete with coconut-sweetened cocktails and Technicolor sunsets.

Wolfgang’s Vault is a Rock Treasure

win781231-02-fp.jpgConcert promoter Bill Graham was a well-known packrat. His collection of posters, tickets, t-shirts, backstage passes and other memorabilia sat in a warehouse after his death in a helicopter crash in 1991. In early 2004, entrepreneur Bill Sagan paid Clear Channel, then-owner of Bill Graham Presents, $6 million for the entire collection and began selling it online.

With five-figure prices for many items, the Wolfgang’s Vault website wasn’t a place for the casual fan – until the advent of Vault Radio. Introduced early last year, it offered free streams of songs from the Fillmore, Winterland and other Graham venues. In late 2006, the site began making many full-length shows available online.

The selection is a treasure trove of the classic rock era. The “Concert Vault,” as it’s now known, dates back to the first Graham-produced show, headlined by the pre-Grace Slick Jefferson Airplane. Early performances from Led Zeppelin, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Cream, are presented in soundboard quality, along with vintage performances from era stalwarts the Grateful Dead, the Who, the Rolling Stones and Quicksilver Messenger Service.

Wolfgang’s Vault has since added broadcasts from the King Biscuit Flower Hour, the King Biscuit-produced Silver Eagle Cross Country program and “Live from the Record Plant,” a series of radio concerts heard originally on San Francisco’s KSAN-FM.

The site currently has almost 600 shows; a small number of them can be purchased, mostly sets from B-list bands like Girlschool and Blackfoot. Apart from a 1976 Santana performance, there’s not much from the classic era. All shows, however, are unencumbered by file protection schemes, and fairly priced at $9.98 each.

The effort is not without controversy. In December, lawyers representing several performers, including the Grateful Dead and Jimi Hendrix, brought suit against Sagan, claiming that Bill Graham never intended to profit from his personal collection. Indeed, he’d discussed plans to open a museum with it.

“We have never given permission for our images and material to be used in this way,” Bob Weir said, complaining that Sagan was “stealing what is most important to us — our work, our images and our music — and is profiting from the good will of our fans.”

Wolfgang’s Vault countersued, arguing that the legal action was a ploy by the record companies to create new sources of revenue, calling it “frivolous.”

Company representatives, who did not comment for this story, claim to have artists’ interests in mind: “Based upon all the information that is available to us,” reads a statement on their site, “we believe that performers can earn between four and six times more from Wolfgang’s Vault per download than they currently receive from their record companies.”

Whatever the outcome of litigation, Wolfgang’s Vault is a must stop for serious music fans. Here are five of the best shows from their archives:

  1. The Police at Zellerbach Hall, 3/4/79 – They’d only released one album, which they played in its’ entirety this night, along with two early singles, “Fall Out” and “Landlord.” Called back for an encore, they’d run out of material, so they reprised the song they’d opened the show with, “Can’t Stand Losing You.”

  1. Pink Floyd at Oakland Coliseum, 5/9/77 – The Bay Area audience was a nice respite for the English band. Fans hung on every note and sound effect, rather than whoop during the quiet moments. Includes pristine versions of “Have a Cigar,” “Money,” and a sadly abbreviated “Us and Them” – the sound board tape ran out. Considered one of the best live Floyd shows ever.

  1. Fleetwood Mac at Capitol Theatre, 6/7/75 – One of the first live performances from the lineup that made Mac a superstar act, as they worked through soon-to-be standards like “Rhiannon” and “Landslide,” along with mid-era favorites like “Spare Me A Little” and “Hypnotized,” a Bob Welch tune sung by Welch’s replacement, Lindsay Buckingham – with a nice Stevie Nicks harmony. A rare glimpse of rock royalty back when they were still a little hungry.

  1. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at the Berkeley Community Theatre, 3/2/73 – Opening for Blood, Sweat and Tears, soon after releasing his first album, the Boss is raw and relentless. Save for a two-song contribution to the inaugural King Biscuit show a few weeks earlier, this is Springsteen’s first full-length live recording. Standout moment: the unreleased (until “Tracks”) “Thundercrack.”

  1. Little Feat at Winterland, 2/14/76 – At the time, a relatively unknown act – ELO headlined this show – the Lowell George-led group has all the pieces in place here. A 22-minute medley, “Cold Cold Cold/Dixie Chicken/Tripe Face Boogie,” doesn’t waste a second; fans at the show (and on the radio) also heard “Willin’” done the way it was intended, and a bang-up version of “Fat Man In The Bathtub.” One of the most bootlegged shows of the Seventies, it’s also one of the best available for download.

October Road – What Decade Is This?

prepon2.jpgAs “That 70’s Show” rode off in a pot smoke haze last year, I wondered about the fate of the actors who weren’t named Ashton or Topher. Laura Prepon has made her move, to the ABC series “October Road,” which premiered last Thursday. Judging from the pilot, Laura seems to have brought the entire decade over with her.

The show’s premise – small town favorite son rises to fame via roman a clef novel that disses most of his friends – is interesting on its face. However, the idea of the novelist as rock star died in the 80’s. In an era of reality television, where writers aren’t even needed let alone revered, the many scenes of Nick’s literary groupies fawning over the arcane symbolism of his only novel are silly. Combine that with the fact that fictional writer Nick Garrett’s prose is startlingly, land-fill stenchingly awful, and you have all the makings of a sure-to-be-cancelled disaster.

But I’m a music writer, after all. As bad as he show is, my real objections to “October Road” center on the producers’ soundtrack selection. Obviously, the writers of the show think there’s no life after “Free Bird.” I don’t believe I heard a single tune in the pilot episode that was less than 30 years old.

Ostensibly, “October Road” opens in 1997, with Nick (Bryan Greenburg) in a post-coital embrace with girlfriend Hannah (Prepon). Hanging above them on the bed is a poster of Kurt Cobain, but playing on the car radio as Nick leaves town is Boston’s “Don’t Look Back.”

Boston wasn’t even a cool band in 1976 when they were selling millions of albums. We’re supposed to believe there’s a bunch of teenage Nirvana fans blissing out to them 21 years later? How about some Green Day – or Gin Blossoms if mainstream’s a must – something, anything from the decade in question?

Fast forward to 2007, when Nick is back in town to teach a one-day seminar at the local college. His friends still engage in their daily ritual, a wacky air guitar session featuring Thin Lizzy’s “Boys Are Back In Town.” I know classic rock never got old, but c’mon, this song came out five years before any of these characters were supposedly born.

Did I mention that Nick had his Kurt Cobain picture on the wall of his New York City apartment? Maybe it was there as a reminder for him to someday check out this “grunge thing” – once he got through the Clash, Duran Duran and Night Ranger.

It’s times like these that make me believe baby boomers should be banned from picking the music for all television shows. At a minimum, these guys should be forced to watch “10 Things I Hate About You” fifty times to absorb the late 90’s teen zeitgeist, because they’ve completely missed the boat here.