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)

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.