Local Rhythms – How not to run a business

Screen shot 2009-11-05 at 10.30.28 AMThis is a story about two industries, one fat and complacent, the other hungry and scrappy.

The first is record labels and the second is music.  Believe me, they’re not the same business.

Remember the fanfare last September, when the remastered Beatles catalog finally came out? Turns out EMI didn’t make enough of the most coveted item to satisfy demand.

As a result, my copy of the Beatles Stereo Box Set took nearly two months to arrive.

Big labels always blame fans for declining revenue, then sue customers and lobby Congress to do their bidding.  Yet when the most popular band in history made its biggest announcement in years, fans were made to wait in line to spend $300.  How does such a thing happen?

You’d think someone might have seen this coming.

Leave aside the fact that 10 years into the MP3 revolution, Beatles songs still aren’t sold digitally (300 USB apples don’t count as far as I’m concerned), or that the reissues contain no new material.   The suits at EMI need to spend less cash on lawyers and more on market research.

9-9-9 was the Beatles big release date.  It’s also the number that you dial in England when there’s an emergency.

I think it’s time to pick up the phone.

Contrast the behavior of annuity holders like EMI with bands that actually have to work for a living.

I’m not just talking about the musicians I write about, the ones with day jobs. Phish posts audiophile-quality soundboard mixes of every show for download. On Halloween, they played the Stones’ Exile on Main Street in its entirety.  I bought it the next day.

One of my favorite new records is Sainthood, from Canadian alterna-pop duo Tegan and Sara, not just for the bristly love songs, which are great.  I also like it for coming in enough flavors to make everyone happy.  The crazily passionate fans can buy a limited edition package with three books and a signed, one of a kind Rorschach print.  A vinyl version comes with a free CD of the pair’s last album, The Con.  Or, you can just get it on iTunes.


The other night at the Claremont Moose, a packed house watched the Agonist top the bill with Hexerei, TranScenT, Hung and three others.  The Agonist’s lead singer Alissa White-Gluz worked the merchandise table right up to the start of the band’s set.

That’s pretty impressive for a headliner.

If record labels reached out to their customers in the same way, things might be different.  But I’m not holding my breath.

On to the rest of the week:

Thursday, Nov. 5: John Gorka, Four Corners Grille – 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.

Friday, Nov. 6 Heather Maloney, Sunapee Coffeehouse – A memorable season continues with singer-songwriter Maloney, whose balance of upbeat and plaintive will appeal to fans of Paula Cole, Joni Mitchell and Beth Orton.  The just-released Cozy Razor’s Edge is a taut, layered work with a big sound.  In a coffeehouse setting her songs will be quieter and intimate. Either way, Maloney is worth checking out.

Saturday, Nov. 7: Ansambl Mastika, Immanuel Episcopal Church – The band call its sound the New Balkan Uproar, a musical melding of wide-ranging influences: the clarinet ‘miroloi’ of northern Greece, Macedonian gypsy music, Serbian, Turkish, Middle Eastern chalgi, Klezmer, Bulgaria wedding band.  The list goes on, but like they used to say on American Bandstand when a song got 90 or better – it has a beat and you can dance to it.

Sunday, Nov. 8: Dartmouth Gospel Choir, Hopkins Center –This fall’s concert by the well regarded student ensemble explores heaven in its many forms– what is the afterlife?  Choir Director Wes Cunningham said in the program notes that he’s looking for “heaven on earth” with contemporary songs like “I’ll Take You There” and “Circle of Life” alongside more traditional fare – “Oh Happy Day,” “Amazing Grace” and “O Give Thanks”.


Tuesday, Nov. 10: Mark LeGrand, Windsor Station – Known for down-home Americana with the Lovesick Bandits and romantic country-flavored songs with his wife Sarah Munro, LeGrand is a regional treasure.  The chance to see him in an intimate setting like Windsor Station shouldn’t be missed.  The restaurant has really beefed up the musical offerings of late – it’s worth a visit.

Wednesday, Nov. 11: Tad Davis, Skunk Hollow – Tad Davis helms this weekly affair. If you’ve ever wondered whether you should take your playing to another level, this is a good starting point. Bring your axe and your songs. You have 15 minutes. The best part is that Simon Cowell is nowhere to be found, and the food’s better.

Local Rhythms – Music wants to be free – or at least freemium

The record companies must be feeling pretty good right now.  Two recent illegal downloading cases netted the RIAA over $2.6 million in judgment money.  The era of piracy is ending, just like they said it would.  Music fans – turn off your computers, start your cars, and drive post haste to Newbury Comics for further instructions.

Not so fast – if that’s really true, it’s only because you can’t steal something that’s already free.

Though the cost of music is rising for webcasters and radio stations, fans are finding it’s getting closer to zero every day.

Start with the many musicians who’ve already written off recorded work as a loss leader to drive fans to their live shows.  Locally, that includes 84 Sheepdog and Ghost Dinner Band (see below and Beyond), but bigger acts are in the picture too – and that’s where it gets interesting.

Trent Reznor gives away Nine Inch Nails music on his web site, but hardcore fans will pay for “freemium” content – extras like DVDs, exclusive concert presales, t-shirts and the like.

Currently, the most compelling free/premium concept is only available in Europe, but is promised Stateside by year’s end – with the record labels’ blessing.  Spotify is a service that looks a lot like iTunes, without the 99 cent per song price tag.   With Spotify, pretty much any song in the world can be streamed free.

The audio quality, and more importantly, stream reliability is, by all accounts, phenomenal.

Unlike services like Last.fm and Pandora, which send music randomly based on a listener’s tastes, Spotify allows you save songs, as well as create and share playlists – just like iTunes.

The whole thing is ad-supported, so it costs nothing if you watch a commercial or two.  Ironically, the delay in bringing the service to the U.S. is apparently tied to the fact that the ads aren’t obtrusive enough.  The labels want fans to work harder for free music.


For a “freemium” fee of five Euros, the ads disappear, and music can be played offline – even on an iPhone.   If music is so easy to get legally, the lure to break the law disappears.

It’s not a whole lot different than Rhapsody or Napster; both offer subscriptions, with unlimited access to downloadable (and portable) tracks.  Of course, access ends when you stop paying.  But the way I see it, for the cost of one CD a month, I can listen to tens, even hundreds more.  That’s a fair deal.

Speaking of which, many of the shows below are no-cover.  What’s stopping you from going?

Thursday: Hop Season Preview, Hopkins Center – Another eclectic lineup from the Hopkins Center this year, with returning favorites like the Carolina Chocolate Drops and the Bill T. Jones dance company, along with the legendary Ravi Shankar and the young, virtuoso Sejong Soloists.  Thursday’s previews (Noon and 5 PM, no ticket required) provide an look of the many shows between now and next May.  Bring your calendar.

Friday: Ghost Dinner Band, Henniker Junction – This band sounds like Pink Floyd meets Tom Waits on their way to an Electric Prunes concert – dreamy, gravel-filled and intense.  Henniker is two towns away from the Sunapee region, and Ghost Dinner, who weave Nirvana and Robert Johnson covers between originals, make it a worthwhile trip.  Their recently released “In Nightmares” is available for free via BitTorrent.

Saturday: West Fest, Claremont – This could get a little crazy.  Every year on Lionel West’s Twistback Road property, the best of the area metal scene gets together.  Anything can happen.  Saturday’s lineup includes Hexerei, Soul Octane Burner, Escape to Everything, Till We Die and TranScenT.  There’s BBQ from Claremont’s Sweet Fire, and a car derby.  Noontime start, 5 buck tickets, and you must be 21 to get in.

Sunday: Brownstock, Ascutney Mountain Resort – I remember going to my very first pig roast, hosted by Rick and Dave Davis, back in 1981.  This year, the name of their annual party is a nod to the 40th anniversary of Woodstock.  Acts include the Gibson Family Band, Carlos Ocasio and Frydaddy, Michael Veitch and Friends, Dave Clark and Juke Joynt, the Nobby Reed Project and anyone related to Rick or Dave Davis who can carry a tune.

Tuesday: Open Mike, One Mile West – George Johnson, carpenter by day, musician by night, rotates hosting duties with the Moores at this Sunapee restaurant/bar.  I stopped in the other day and was impressed with the great menu and the huge selection of beverages on tap, including a lovely Long Trail Double IPA, and a made in New Hampshire (non-alcohol) blueberry soda.

Wednesday: Squids, Ben Mere Bandstand – Always a good time, hope there’s good weather.  The Squids are the perfect excuse for an afternoon of alfresco music.  See you on the Sunapee harbor!

Beyond – Worth driving out of town
Pleasant Valley Brewing
16 Main Street, Saxtons River, Vermont
Distance: 41 minutes south

Why: 84 Sheepdog w/ Ingrid
When: Friday 7 August

Formed as a Richard Thompson tribute band, Ingrid’s Ruse provided many memorable nights of music before lead singer/guitarist Ingrid Ayer-Richardson moved to Maine in 2007.  After “The Ruse” split, band mates Josh Maiocco and Shamus Martin busied themselves with solo endeavors – Josh’s singer-songwriter work, and Shamus’s many projects with his independent Exsubel label.   They formed 84 Sheepdog last year.

Ingrid’s back in town for a visit and a rare set with her old pals, so this is a must-see affair.  Pleasant Valley Brewing Company, run by ex-Windham manager Patrick LeBlanc, is a great, music-friendly place too.

84 Sheepdog has a novel “plug and tug” way of getting their music to the masses.  Anyone who comes to a show with an MP3 player can hook up to a computer and download band tracks.

Same old story – publisher preoccupied by paper

Bran HambricA few months ago, “The Last Tycoon,”  T.J. Stiles’ biography of Cornelius Vanderbilt, received several withering reviews on Amazon.com.  Most of the critics hadn’t even read it.  They were owners of Amazon’s ridiculously successful Kindle digital reader.  Their enmity stemmed from the book’s high price in digital format – well north of the typical $9.99 for most titles.

Ultimately, the publisher reduced “The Last Tycoon” to $9.99, and presumably the reviews improved.

Apparently,  Sourcebooks, Inc. didn’t get the word, or worse, believe they can swim against the digital tide.  After all, the music business stuck to its guns, and CD sales are doing so well.  Why not the publishing business?

Oh, wait, iTunes is kicking everyone’s butt.  Nevermind.

Sourcebooks won’t be releasing their upc0ming Harry Potter wannabe,  “Bran Hambric: The Fairfield Curse,” by Kaleb Nation, in digital form – at least not initially.  Here’s why:

“It doesn’t make sense for a new book to be valued at $9.99,” said Dominique Raccah, CEO of Sourcebooks, which issues 250 to 300 new titles annually. “The argument is that the cheaper the book is, the more people will buy it. But hardcover books have an audience, and we shouldn’t cannibalize it.” An e-book for “Bran Hambric” will become available in the spring, she said.

That’s close to the same logic employed by the music business, but Trident Media Group’s Robert Gottleib takes it a step further:

“It’s no different than releasing a DVD on the same day that a new movie is released in the movie theaters,” he said. “Why would you do that?”

Considering the post-theater revenue of most movies, a better question might be why wouldn’t you do that?  Since the advent of the VCR, personal ownership of films has skyrocketed.  In the mid-80’s, when the standard price for a cassette dropped to a reasonable level, sales jumped.  It’s easy to forget that once upon a time it cost 69 bucks to buy a rental copy of “Foul Play” for your own use.

I’ve had a Kindle since Christmas, and since that time my reading budget hasn’t really changed. I do have more to choose from, so publishers are making less per title from me.  But that’s not a bad thing when you consider that I’m finding new authors, broadening my horizons.

Kaleb Nation is a first-time novelist.  How can limiting the availability of his work help his career – especially among the hardcore readers who own a Kindle?

Local Rhythms – Musical Independence

Picture 6I was all set to write about the Fourth of July until my mood was interrupted by thoughts of a different sort of independence.

A common thread runs through many of the interviews I’ve done with female singer-songwriters – they all cite Patty Griffin as a key influence.  Many have said she’s the reason they started writing songs.

Which brings a special poignancy to the way Griffin’s early career was mismanaged by record companies.

Her label (A&M) tried to turn Griffin’s first album into a country-rock comic book before scrapping the studio sessions and releasing her original demo.  Thank goodness – “Living With Ghosts” is a raw, naked masterpiece, rivaled only by Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” for its seminality.

She wasn’t as lucky with “Silver Bell,” her would-be third album.  It became a hostage of A&M’s sale to Interscope, and has never been released.

Fortunately, Patty Griffin chose not to be beaten down by this situation.  She severed ties with her new label, and signed with Dave Matthews’ ATO Records.

What followed was a career-defining body of work that’s still in progress.

How much more artistic freedom does she have?  Her next album is a collection of gospel covers!

Over the years, “Silver Bell” has become something of a holy grail for me, and I’ve managed to find all but one track online.

But last weekend I was surprised by some great news.

A musician who worked on “Silver Bell” gave a close to perfect copy of the sessions (including a track I didn’t even know existed) to a blogger, who proceeded to leak it the world.

God bless him – great music must be heard.

We are witnessing an era of independence like no other, with artists in control of their destinies, and the checkbook clowns who once owned them dead on the side of the road.

Follow my lead, and steal a copy of “Silver Bell.”

Ask yourself – what’s the possible upside of keeping this music away from the public?

Why waste time, as EMI did recently, refusing to participate in efforts to grow the Internet as a music distribution platform and dreaming of a return to 1990?

Ifhippies can’t bring back Woodstock Nation, what makes the record business think there’s another Michael Jackson out there capable of moving 20 million units?

It’s time to get real – set the music free.

Happy Independence Day – here’s the happenings:

Thursday: Antje Duvekot & Chris O’Brien, Boccelli’s – A wonderful night of folk music in Bellows Falls, featuring Duvekot, a singer-songwriter who gets better every day (her latest, produced by Richard Shindell, is a gem).  O’Brien is a BF favorite who’s working on a new album to follow his scintillating debut, 2007’s “Lighthouse.”  I’ve been looking forward to this one for a long time.

Friday: Diana Krall, Meadowbrook U.S, Cellular Pavilion – I confess, I knew a lot about Krall’s interpretive singing style and very little about her musicianship until I saw her on her husband Elvis Costello’s “Spectacle.”   Her piano playing is amazing.  Elton John interviewed her, and his smitten air playing told me all I need to know – this will be a great show.

Saturday: Neil Diamond, Boston Esplanade – OK, there’s a ton of stuff going on today – Woodstock’s old fashioned fourth, Avi & Celia in Bellows Falls (and Brattleboro), fireworks everywhere, Roadhouse at the Anchorage.  But if I could be one place only, it would next to the Charles River experiencing the annual Pops concert featuring the reborn Diamond and an unbelievable show in the sky.

Sunday:  Áine Minogue, St. Gaudens – The summer series of concerts begins in Cornish with this Irish-born harp player, vocalist, folklorist and lecturer. The Boston Globe says Minogue “combines a hypnotic Celtic spirituality and contemporary sophistication in her playing and delicately lovely singing.”  I can’t think of a better instrument to waft through the statuary at Saint Gaudens, a local treasure.

Monday:  Open Mike with Second Wind, Digby’s – There’s a serious open mike scene in the area.  Terry Ray Gould hosts this Sunapee confab with his partner Suzy Hastings, and his Facebook posts about it have been positively giddy.  Serious fun, prizes, drink specials and loads of musical camaraderie.  They must call it “hospitality night” for a reason.  For my money, it’s a perfect way to spend Monday night.

Wednesday: Yvonne & the Reverbs, Lyman Point Band Shell – Outdoor shows seem to be a dodgey venture these days – will the rain ever end?  Fortunately, this weekly free series of summer shows repairs to the Bugbee Senior Center if the skies open up.  This Wednesday, it’s a country rock band with a good reputation in area clubs for keeping the energy level high.

Local Rhythms – Twitter for music? I’m in.

picture-18I’ve come around to Twitter.

For the longest time, it just seemed frivolous.  So you’re stuck in the airport, or navigating the Starbucks latte line.  Who cares?

Then I learned how to use blip.fm to Tweet music to my peeps.

For the uninitiated, a tweet is Twitter’s hybrid of a Facebook status update and an instant message; peeps are recipients, your Twitter followers.

One of the big challenges of writing about music is finding ways for people to hear it.

Enter blip.fm, the web site that lets anyone program a radio station and tweet it to the world.

It’s not the first tool to do this.  But I’ve find imeem, i.Like and other music recommendation services a bit cumbersome.

Blip.fm does a good job with the basics.

Their large peer-to-peer database makes picking music a breeze, and “blipping” a song automatically generates a tweet.

My site (http://blip.fm/LocalRhythms) includes music covered in this space, by performers – Stonewall, Conniption Fits, Jenee Halstead, and others – that you likely won’t hear on the radio.

Here’s why.  The Future of Music Coalition recently published a study showing that around 80 percent of all material on radio playlists comes from major labels – worse yet, almost 50 percent was released before 1999.

The numbers haven’t changed in four years.

But while the public apparently recognizes this steady stream of one-hit wonders and golden oldies for the calculated gruel it is, neither a payola scandal nor a slump rivaled only by the auto industry has reversed this self-destructive trend.

Clear Channel, the largest owner of American radio stations, has shed 12 percent of its workforce since the start of this year.  Last week another big player, Cumulus, ordered employees to take 5 days of unpaid leave as a cost-saving measure.

But like Detroit, it’s doubtful they’ve learned any lessons.  Big Radio will probably do the safety dance of homogenization (their own SUV) right into the grave.

I don’t expect my humble Internet outpost to completely replace that, but at least it will offer a way for readers to judge with their ears some of the music I discuss each week.

Follow me on Twitter (account name: mwitthaus), to hear about songs as they’re added.  I’ll also tweet links to interesting articles and blog posts.

But if I ever share my sandwich order, or an opinion about my dentist’s waiting room, please cancel – and get me into treatment.  Meanwhile, here’s what’s happening:

Thursday: Jason Cann, Harpoon Brewery – If you haven’t been to the newly remodeled and expanded tavern at Harpoon’s Windsor location, the addition of the region’s best-kept singer-songwriter secret as a regular Thursday attraction should provide the impetus.  But the multitude of brews on tap should draw you in anyway, not to mention the food.

Friday: Roadhouse, Imperial Lounge – That axiom about a day job being “the gig that pays for the gig”?  This band embodies it and then some.  The members of Roadhouse are working class locals who’ve been playing in the area for years, mostly covering their favorites – Benetar, Seger, AC/DC are right in their wheelhouse – and mainly having a good time.

Saturday: DeVote Dance Party, White River Junction Elks – A techno benefit for Upper Valley Haven features four DJs – Shar4 and 1200 Terrorist of the Tronic Crew (VT and NH chapters respectively), Robot Ears and DJ Alchemic.  The event promises non-stop dance music played through a top-notch sound system, all for $5 and a non-perishable food item, gently used piece of clothing or a book.

Sunday: Ameranouche Trio, Grafton Old Tavern – This gypsy jazz trio’s music has been featured in movies, heard at last year’s Newport Jazz Festival and called a state “best of “ by New Hampshire Magazine.  They play intricate, jazzy and mostly instrumental tunes.  Listening to them reminded me of a day I spent in Montmarte, Paris.  The band’s second CD was just released, so the night (at one of the oldest venues in the U.S.) should be a happy one.

Monday: 200 Years of Vermont Popular Music, Woodstock Historical Society – Singer, researcher and recently retired teacher Linda Radtke dressed in period costume, is joined by pianist John Lincoln.  The program brings Vermont history to life with performances of, and commentary about, the songs found in the Vermont Historical Society’s collection of sheet music – mostly community-published songs.  It’s old school local music.

Tuesday: Billy Rosen/David Westphalen, Tip Top Café – Billy’s one of my favorite guitarists, with a soft touch on the fret board. Downtown White River Junction is jumping again, with the newly re-opened Elixir bringing the tunes 4-5 nights a week, but the Tip-Top, with regular live music (and its auxiliary bakery’s Friday night folk series) has kept the beat going. Good food, too.

Visit http://blip.fm/LocalRhythms to hear music mentioned in Local Rhythms

Local Rhythms – Record Store Day

picture-11Music business news is giving me whiplash.

Take the RIAA lawsuits.  Last December, the industry organization announced plans to stop going after fans, focusing instead on Internet service providers.

But they’re milking all they can out of their ongoing cases.  A UNH student was initially sued for sharing 7 songs but, her attorney recently told the Union Leader, “the number keeps changing, and unfortunately, it’s going in the wrong direction.”

The growth of legal download services is an industry bright spot, right?  Fans are getting with the program.  That’s a good thing.

Here’s the industry’s idea for how best to capitalize on this success – raise prices.  That’s right, “Stairway to Heaven” used to cost a buck on iTunes – now it’s $1.29.

Head spin, neck snap – huh?

Here’s another puzzler.  Apple Corps responded to Beatles fans clamoring for MP3s of Fab Four songs by – wait for it – remastering and reissuing their entire catalog on CD.

Talk about partying like it’s 1999.

“Discussions regarding … digital distribution … will continue,” read a clueless press release.  “There is no further information available at this time.”

One glimmer of hope is Record Store Day, a worldwide celebration of indie retailers happening this Saturday.  Participating New Hampshire stores include Bull Moose, Turn It Up! and Newbury Comics.

Granted, a 28-store chain can’t exactly be called independent, but one Newbury Comics clerk typically knows more about what’s in the bins than the entire staff at Best Buy or Wal-Mart.  That’s still unique and worth preserving.

A lot of musicians agree, and are chipping in with store appearances and RSD-only releases.

Locally, Static-X takes a break from the Sno-Core tour to appear at Bull Moose in Portsmouth, while big names like Lamb of God, State Radio and Sarah Borges are among those listed for Newbury Comics (including a 4-band show in Nashua, roots rocker Michael Bernier in Salem, and an open microphone in West Lebanon) .

Special product includes Americana chanteuse Tift Merritt’s “Buckingham Solo” live collection, special 7” singles from the Stooges, Andrew Bird and Brandi Carlile, along with 12” platters from Talking Heads, Radiohead and Regina Spektor.

There’s also  “This Album Crashes Hard Drives,” an audiophile-grade vinyl indie sampler specially released for Record Store Day.

“In a rare act of collective goodwill,” says a blurb about the disc on recordstoreday.com, “[artists] have come together and made a high-quality LP at a price you can actually afford.”

If only the RIAA cared that much about fans.  What else is happening?

Thursday: Bluesberry Jam, Salt hill Newport – Arthur James holds forth in the weekly blues-tinged jam session, with amps and microphones provided.  James usually rocks it up with his band Northbound, but calls tonight’s ensemble “Unacoustic Mayhem”. This is a standard open mike affair, with a bluesier touch. It beats American Idol by a country mile.

Friday: Herman’s Hermits, Paramount Theater (Rutland) – Peter Noone is still at it, 45 years after topping the charts with the Carole King/Gerry Goffin-penned “I’m Into Something Good.”  These days, he’s as likely to cover David Bowie as dip into his catalog of smashes like “There’s a Kind of Hush,” “Silhouettes” or “Mrs. Brown, You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter.”

Saturday: Mary Gauthier, Lebanon Opera House – A benefit for COVER that also features Anais Mitchell.  Listening to Gauthier, who’s lived as hardscrabble a life as any musician around, you know her songs come from a very real place.  Tomorrow night in Bellows Falls, she plays an intimate show at Boccelli’s on the Canal, a great little restaurant which seats less than 100 people. As of Sunday, tickets were still available.

Sunday: Gavin DeGraw, SNHU Field House – The singer-songwriter came to prominence the way a lot of musicians are doing it these days, by way of a youth-oriented television show.  “One Tree Hill” featured his “I Don’t Want to Be” as its theme song.  The Berklee grad just released his 4th studio album.  “Free” is a deliciously soulful, yet rough around the edges affair that should please fans and newcomers alike.

Monday: Todd Rundgren, Iron Horse – It appears that Todd’s in the same boat as Leonard Cohen.  He made a few bad business decisions (like selling his share of Meat Loaf’s “Bat Out of Hell,” which he produced) and now he tours a lot.  Rundgren is directly or indirectly responsible for some of the best pop to come of out the 1970s, writing “I Saw The Light” and “Hello It’s Me” and producing Grand Funk’s “We’re An American Band.”  A night with him is a tuneful journey.

Tuesday: Nrityagram Dance Ensemble, Hopkins Center – This week’s eclectic pick blends the classical dance forms of India with contemporary concepts.  It’s colorful and kinetic, combining “magic and spirituality with the sensuous flow of Odissi, the oldest of India ‘s classical dance forms,” according to the troupe’s web site.

Local Rhythms – Segue to Heaven

bf_port_bioThe other day, I received a mini-lecture on the perils of technology from one of those “I’m not a computer person” people.

Though I remain unconvinced to give up e-mail, digital newspapers or my beloved iPod, she did make me nostalgic for old school disk jockeys.

Among the changes wrought by the MP3 era is a near disappearance of the artful transition from one song to another.

These days, the word “segue” brings to mind the two-wheeled transportation of “Paul Blart Mall Cop” – not music.

But there was a time when the radio was a wonderful place of discovery and the hosts were spirit guides and alchemists.

“I am a DJ, I am what I play,” David Bowie once sang. “I’ve got believers.”

Once a guy named Joe Kelly on KOME-FM in San Jose, California laid the brooding harmonica opening of Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” atop the final notes of Meat Loaf’s “Bat of Hell,” and it made me want to go out and case the promised land.

Pandora, Slacker and Last.fm are fine at what they do, but they’re simply tools to find music.

They can’t make you feel it.

I miss that – but Bill Fitzhugh gives me hope.

Fitzhugh’s “All Hand Mixed Vinyl” show combines the passion of radio’s golden era with the skill of a great club DJ.

A typical set features Chicago’s “Southern California Purples” split down the middle, between it two versions of “I Am The Walrus,” and crowned with Todd Rundgren’s note for note recreation of “Strawberry Fields Forever.”

Every song is slip-cued and beat-mixed to perfection.

Last week’s half-hour featured a seamless transition of Zeppelin’s “Living Loving Maid” to Tull’s “Aqualung” to an obscure Grand Funk song, leading eventually to the commingling of the percussion sections of “Whole Lotta Love” and Chicago’s “I’m A Man.”

As Fitzhugh wove the two songs together multiple times, it was hard to tell where one ended and the other began.

Musically and thematically, it worked perfectly. Lyrics like “you need cooling/baby I’m not fooling,” and “I’m a man and I can’t help but love you so” are sentiments cut from the same cloth.

Fitzhugh’s been doing his thing for a couple of years now, once a week (with multiple replays) on the XM Deep Tracks satellite channel.

Considering that listening to “Abbey Road” on shuffle can turn me into a Luddite, it’s like a glass of cool water in the desert.

What else is cool this week?

Thursday: Eve 6, Pickle Barrel – It’s the sweet spot of ski season, which means my favorite winter place – the après-ski lodge – is bustling. Tonight, an LA-based alt-rock band that got its name from an X-Files episode carries on with two out of three original members, after splitting in 2004. They’re working on a new album, but expect to hear “Inside Out,” which went to number one on the modern rock charts in 1998.

Friday: Mark Erelli, Boccelli’s – “Delivered” is far and away the best effort of Erelli’s career. From parenthood (“Once”) to the loss of his own parents (“Man of the Family”) to the dual comfort and frustration of unchanging routine (“Hope Dies Last”), no record in 2008 better exemplified what life is like today. You owe it to yourself to hear Mark play this beautiful, soul-affirming masterpiece (solo) tonight.

Saturday: Sensible Shoes Dance Party, Canoe Club – Once a month, this downtown restaurant clears away a few tables and indulges in decibels the way a chocoholic attacks dessert. Last time around, Tim Utt and Barbara Blaisdell’s soulful band attracted a good crowd to this late start (9 PM) party, and rocked their way through familiar songs and a few choice selections from a new record due later this spring. Big fun!

Sunday: Kris Delmhorst, Armadillo’s Burritos – This singer-songwriter began her last album (“Shotgun Singer”) with stripped-down solo takes, then called in her pals, including Peter Mulvey and husband Jeffrey Foucault, to flesh them out. The results wowed critics far and wide, and led to a lot of airplay on XM’s Loft station, which is an oasis for Americana fans. Armadillo’s, located in downtown Keene, presents folk shows monthly.

Monday: Open Mike, Bentley’s – This is the perfect Monday event. It’s full of surprises, just like the start of the week. Silas & Company helm the talent night, typically broken into 15 minute segments, and welcoming anyone with a guitar and the guts to perform in front of an audience. With the bevy of open mikes area-wide, there must be plenty fitting that description.

Tuesday: Singer and Jordan, Tip Top Café – Phil Singer and Laurianne Jordan play the kind of folk music that was in vogue before Dylan went electric. They sing about trains, love gone wrong and leaders in need of schooling, all of which pair well with anything on the menu at this fine White River Junction restaurant.

Local Rhythms – ITMS Drops DRM? BFD

no_drm_apple_sqLast week, Apple behaved more like Detroit of years past , with new fins, bells and whistles adorning their computers and software. But there was no iPhone-level breakthrough at the annual Macworld Expo.

The biggest news proved just how underwhelming the whole show was.

In April, the iTunes Music Store will go DRM-free, stripping file locking from the millions of songs it sells.

But, as they say in the news business, the company buried the lede.

Sure, the remaining record companies followed EMI, which decrypted some of their music in 2007.  But in exchange, they got variable pricing, topping out at $1.29 per song.

It’s a move that Apple’s resisted for years.

There’s no official word yet, but I’m betting it’s the most popular music that goes beyond the once-standard 99 cents per track. That’s just how this business does things.

Utter idiocy.

To paraphrase industry gadfly Bob Lefsetz, who weighed in immediately after the announcement – only gas stations are raising prices.

The bestselling books are always discounted, and CDs with one or two hits on them are loss leaders from Best Buy to Wal-Mart.  Yet these moguls think digital music, which requires no assembly line, warehouse or shipping channel, ought to cost more,

Is it any wonder they’re bleeding red ink?

Anyway, I find the whole no-DRM discussion beside the point.  e-Music, with perhaps the best legal indie music catalog anywhere, has been doing it forever, and they don’t rule the world.

Music from iTunes is easily bought, and (up to now, anyway) simply understood.

But without the computer/iPod synergy with iTunes, it’s nothing.  Besides, 90 percent of music stored on portable devices is already DRM-free, because it was ripped from CD or stolen online.

Now, if an all-you-can-eat rental service went DRM-free, that would be newsworthy.  I swear by Rhapsody.  For 15 bucks a month, I get all the music I want when I want it.

My biggest problem with this unlimited library is that I can’t play it on an iPod.

Fix that little difficulty, and the iTunes Music Store will lose its cool factor in a Cupertino minute.

Which is why this big move is such small beer.  Anyone with an iPod gets music from Apple already.  I’d love to hear how many people even care that their songs are handcuffed.

However, if the next Justin Timberlake single costs 30 cents more, they may start paying attention.

When that happens, I’m guessing it won’t be a good thing – for Apple or the music business.

Now, on to the local scene:

Thursday: Johnny Winter & James Montgomery, Latchis Theatre – At 17, I snuck into a bar to see the lightning-fingered Winter play blues guitar.  It was mesmerizing.  Though he’s frail these days (like B.B. King, he performs sitting down), the flame still burns.  With harmonica genius Montgomery at his side, it should be a great evening. The event benefits the Brattleboro High School Marching Band’s trip to next Tuesday’s Presidential inauguration.  They’re the only Vermont band to receive the honor.

Friday: Elsa Cross, Salt hill Pub – The flood of Seacoast bands to Salt hill continues with this Americana singer-songwriter who claims Loretta Lynn’s music gave her an out of body experience, and whose own songs have been compared to a female Johnny Cash.  Accompanied by Steve Roy on upright bass, and PJ Donahue of the Amorphous Band, her debut Lebanon performance should be a barn burner.

Saturday: Soledad Barrio & Noche Flamenca, Hopkins Center – Spanish guitar and staccato heels feature in this centuries-old tradition, along with clapping, singing and incessant rhythm.  Dancer Soledad Barrio “dances as if possessed by the spirit of a Gypsy encampment…She breathes the essence of flamenco,” according to the New York Times.  After the show (which also plays Friday), there will be a question and answer session with Barrio and her husband Martin Santangelo, who directs the Madrid-based troupe.

Sunday: Johnny B and the Goodes with Ted Mortimer, Plainfield Town Hall – Johnny Bishop’s harp playing is a throwback to the masters of old – I loved his recent album.  Ted’s an ace guitarist with a delicate touch.  With a famous Maxfield Parrish mural as a backdrop, these guys will play the blues while celebrating next week’s inauguration. This event is BYOB, and I suspect they’ll be a lot of champagne corks popping, PBR music notwithstanding

Tuesday: Inauguration Party with Dr. Burma, Whaleback Ski Area – Our new president is at the center of several events tonight, including a Skunk Hollow open mike. The Whaleback party is dubbed “Brick by Brick: A Community Building Party.” It both celebrates the events in D.C. and shines a light on work done by non-profit organizations in the community. The Upper Valley Land Trust, the Upper Valley Haven, Vital Communities, and the Upper Valley United Way are represented so far – suggested donation is five dollars.

Local Rhythms – Turntable Turn-on

s_turntableEverything old is new again.

For example, the downward trend of the music business’s general state remains unchanged, but one rare bright spot is a throwback – turntables.

Digital track sales are up, while CD sales are down – no surprise there.  But the biggest industry growth area is a bit shocking.  Vinyl album sales have nearly doubled in the last year.

That’s only a million or so LPs, and with disc sales plummeting exponentially more, not enough to save the day.  But it’s good to know warm, honest sound is back in vogue.

I have a record player and I’m not afraid to use it, but I’ll need something better than my 1989 Technics model to enjoy the current generation of long players (top seller: Radiohead’s “In Rainbows” followed by the Beatles’ “Abbey Road”).

The vinyl’s heavier, which makes for better sound, but the price tag is also weighty – over 20 bucks each for most platters.

So I prowl the swap meets and EBay auctions for out of print gems like the Fools’ “Sold Out” or the first (and only) Cowboy Jazz album.  I also try not to wonder why the LP is suddenly such an expensive format.

Didn’t’ CDs double the price of music when they replaced vinyl 25 years ago?  Maybe those in the business expect folks who held album-dumping garage sales in the 80s to once again pay through the nose to replace their entire collections.

The more things change, the more they remain the same.

Leaving the circular firing squad to its own devices (hey, we have a newly successful sales formula – let’s price it out of everyone’s reach!), I’m heartened by another trend.  Digital album sales increased in 2008, which is good news for anyone who believes it takes more than one good song to make a great musician.

If folks are going to iTunes for more than the odd Katy Perry single, things could be improving.  But I’m not holding my breath.

This week, I’m at the annual MacWorld conference in San Francisco, where video and iPhone apps come up in conversation more than music does. Rumors swirl about Steve Jobs’ absence (is he sick? No, just protein deficient.), Apple’s decision to withdraw after 2009 (are they smug?), but I doubt even an iTunes Vinyl Store would shake things up.

DRM is gone, but it’s too late.

After years of industry dithering, coupled with ever-widening entertainment options, everyone’s moved on.  Even Apple can’t save them.

Here’s the area live music slate:

Thursday: Wise Rockobili, Firestones – This is creative self-expression night, I guess.  Salt hill, Casa del Sol and Clear River Tavern host open mike nights, while 7 Barrel Brewery recently launched Karaoke Thursdays.   This Quechee restaurant features a revolving ringmaster – next week is Tad Davis, followed on January 22 by Guy Burlage.  Bring your axe and your courage.

Friday: Jimmy Dunn’s Comedy All-Stars, Claremont Opera House – The host of NESN’s “Fan Attic” is the ringleader for an evening of stand-up comedy that includes Paul D’Angelo, Rich Ceisler and Tony Moschetto.  There’s nothing like a lot of hearty laughter to shake away the winter blues.   Expect a lot of Boston-centric humor, although Moschetto has worked everywhere, including Beijing, so who knows?  Anything can happen, all of it funny.

Saturday: Dr. Burma, Salt hill Pub – One of my favorite albums of 2008 came from this Upper Valley R&B outfit, which has a reputation for packing the dance floor at Salt Hill with some inspired, high energy sounds.   I particularly like their version John Hiatt’s smoldering song, “The Crush,” but the original material contained on “One Bite Won’t Kill You” is also first rate.  DB’s always a great party, tonight at a music-loving venue.

Sunday: Richard “Dobbs” Hartshorne, St. Thomas Episcopal Church – Everyone calls this upright bassist and storyteller by one name – Dobbs.  Today’s show is a benefit for the Upper Valley Music Center.  It includes a lecture called “Hope Through Music” that recounts his work with children, refugees, and prisoners in Afghanistan, Palestine, and the U.S, as well as a performance of Dobbs’ own unique musical work.

Tuesday: Singer & Jordan, Tip Top Café – Phil Singer and Lucianne Jordan play authentic folk music, show tune and fun stuff from every era..  For an example of what they do, check out Phil’s recently launched web site, dogandponymusic.com, with free downloads of his many songs (he’s been making music since the mid-60s), as well as lyrics and a growing section for tunes from his many musical friends.

Wednesday: The Wood Brothers, Higher Ground – Both Oliver and Chris Wood spent time in other bands – Oliver in King Johnson, Chris in jazz genre-benders Medeski, Martin & Wood – before forming a duo and releasing “Ways Not to Lose” in 2006.  They’ve played their brand of stripped down blues-rock for audiences at Bonnaroo and Carnegie Hall.  Tonight, it’s Northern Vermont.

Local Rhythms – Greening the New Year

new_years_toastIt’s time again for New Year’s resolutions.  I’ve decided to make 2009 my year of being green.

I’m newly militant about separating trash and not buying anything that comes in a wax-coated carton.

No more bottled water, when a reusable carafe and a Brita filter does the trick and doesn’t add to landfills.

And when it comes to music, the smaller the carbon footprint, the bigger the chance I’ll hear it.

To put a finer point on it, the compact disc must die.

Two examples, one right, the other very wrong, illustrate my point.

Earlier this month a Boston band called the Macrotones emailed to offer me their latest album, “Wayne Manor.”

The all-instrumental record is full of lively jazz excursions infused with a Latin backbeat.  The unique sound recalls a funky version of Sun Ra’s Arkestra (there are 10 musicians credited, and they all seem to be working on every track), as well as Frank Zappa in his “Grand Wazoo” days.

The Macrotones also remind me of newer groups like Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, and the album’s best track, “Book It,” pulls all the elements together, featuring sizzling trombone work from Nate Leskovic, with hypnotic percussion and twin saxophones making a tasty musical stew.

Notice how I haven’t referred to “Wayne Manor” as a CD?

The band’s email pointed me to a web site where the album and all the artwork could be found.  You’d think this would be an everyday occurrence, but strangely it was the first time a band offered to provide a review copy in this way.

Compare this to the new Lindsey Buckingham record, which I loved by the way.  “Gift Of Screws” first arrived via express mail, an advance copy registered in my name, replete with threatening language about the consequences if I shared it.

Which was beside the point, as the disc was so gummed up with DRM that only one player (thankfully, in my car) didn’t spit it out when I tried to play it.

Later a brown truck delivered yet another disk, containing artwork and credits.

That’s a lot of gas, cardboard and plastic for something I could have had in seconds via a much more environmentally friendly means of transport.

It’s wasteful and stupid, so in 2009, I’m giving priority to the Macrotones of the world.

Don’t tax the planet – It sure as heck doesn’t improve the music.

By the way, local music requires less gas:

Thursday: Guy Davis, Plainfield Grange – He’s said that growing up the only cotton he picked was his underwear off the floor, and recently Guy Davis told a journalist that the first time he heard the blues was in college, played by lily-white Vermont boys.  Still, Davis embodies the blues, channeling masters like Howlin’ Wolf and Blind Willie McTell, though he possesses his own unique style.  This intimate local performance should be a treat.

Friday: Pete Merrigan, Salt hill – A Pete show in January kind of boggles the mind, but think of it this way: it will be summer all over again, The good-natured purveyor of “life, love and laughter – one song at a time” got his start playing in the Shanty, a pub run by Josh Tuohy’s mom and dad in Sunapee.  Now Josh has his own tavern, so this show is a homecoming of sorts.

Saturday: Erica Wheeler, Boccelli’s – The first of several upcoming shows features a fine singer-songwriter whose music evokes a sense of place.  One critic likened her last record, “Good Summer Rain,” to “flipping through a photo album of an Ansel Adams road trip.” Next month, Boccelli’s welcomes Mark Erelli, who made my favorite album of 2008 (Feb 6) and a great Chris O’Brien/Jenee Halstead double bill on February 28.  BOCS is a happening place.

Sunday: Wu-Tang Clan, Higher Ground – WTC is less a band than a conglomerate with a musical division. These so-called hardcore rappers also dabble in film, television and fashion.  In addition, they’ve launched a lot of other hip-hop careers, which why explain why it took them six years to make their 2007 album “8 Diagrams.”  The original collective, with the exception of Ol’ Dirty Bastard, who died in 2004, is still performing, though Method Man won’t be at this show.

Tuesday: Billy Rosen & Emily Lanier, Tip Top Café – There’s still jazz in White River Junction, Tonight, two of my favorites perform. Guitarist Rosen has an ever so soft touch.  After a long run with New Kind of Blue, vocalist Lanier can be heard in several different configurations, most prominently with the Emily Lanier Jazz Ensemble. With dishes like pork & ginger meatloaf with red wine demiglace, the Tip-Top’s menu is as inventive as the music.