Fred X – Great music, and cake for everyone

Picture 5As show time approached, music fans milled in front of the Bellows Falls Opera House, munching on barbeque and comparing notes from past festivals.  Downstairs in the reception area, festival organizer Ray Massucco unveiled an enormous “Fred X” cake, and later when he introduced local singer/songwriter Josh Maiocco, he offered everyone in the house a piece.

It’s Roots on the River, a musical Brigadoon that materializes every June in the mist of Bellows Falls and Rockingham.  For four wonderful days, any music lover can be part of community – there’s enough cake for everyone

Stave, Gary, Jackie and Amy, who traveled from Great Britain for the festival, commiserated with their friend Randy, who’d made the trek from northern California.   Soon, their friend John joined them.

“I came to my first Roots in 2007,” said John, who’d come from Manchester, England.  “Now, I have a girlfriend in Saxton’s River.”

Picture 3Josh Maiocco worked though a short set of autobiographical songs and a few covers, including a tasty medley of Johnny Cash’s “Big River” and “This Little Light of Mine.”

“No way I’m playing here without doing a Chris Whitley song,” Josh said, as he ended with “Dirt Floor,” a poignant reminder of Whitley’s last ever appearance, at the 2005 festival.

A laid-back Chris Smither won the house over with his good humor and great songwriting.  There’s probably no musician as comfortable in his own skin as the New Orleans-raised Smither, a writer/essayist who spent nearly as much time telling stories as singing songs during his set.

He previewed songs from the upcoming “Time Stands Still,” a studio album due for September release.  Among the highlights was a song he wrote for his four-year old daughter  (he quipped that she’d written two thirds of it, but he didn’t want to tell her because “then she’ll want money”), a conversation between father and daughter which contained this knowing refrain: “The wisest answer’s one you’ve learned a long time ago: ‘I don’t know’”

Picture 4Smither introduced another new song, “Surprise, Surprise,” as “topical – which is just as hard to write as a regular song, but only lasts for six months or so.  With such a short shelf life, you have to play it a lot.”

After two relatively sedate, sit-down solo sets from Maiocco and Smither, Sonny Landreth’s brand of Southern blues-rock was a bit jarring, and a few fans made an early exit.   Fans of the slide guitarist, however, were  electrified by his high-energy pyrotechnics.

It was  a great kickoff to the festival, which continues tomorrow with a free Ninja Monkey/Spike Dogtooth show at the Farmer’s Market, and the first of Fred Eaglesmith’s  shows in the tent behind the Everyday Inn.  Ray Massucco commissioned another cake specially for the show, in the shape of co-star Junior Brown’s “guit-steel” guitar.

It’s Brown’s birthday, and Ray’s a hospitable guy. There will probably be plenty to share.

Tickets remain for Friday night’s show, and the all-day Saturday ten extravaganza, featuring Eaglesmith’s band, the Bottle Rockets, Hayes Carll, Roger Marin, the Sweetback Sisters, Caroline Herring, Red Molly and Jenee Halstead.

There are also seats available for the Meetinghouse show on Sunday, featuring Eaglesmith and Jeffrey Foucault.

Local Rhythms – Back to my roots

fred“Roots on the River” begins tonight at the Bellows Falls Opera House, with a double bill featuring Sonny Landreth and Chris Smither.

In 10 years, the four-day festival has become one of Vermont’s most-loved events.

Three separate performances by Fred J. Eaglesmith and his band leave no doubt about why the long weekend of music is known far and wide as “FredFest.”

But there’s a whole lot of talent swirling around Mr. Eaglesmith.

What will be the biggest surprise for the tenth go-round, known as Fred X?  Over the years, Gandalf Murphy and the Slambovian Circus of Dreams, Chris Whitley (his final appearance), Ingrid’s Ruse, Crooked Still and Sarah Borges have all left indelible impressions on me.

That’s just a few of the names; surely there’ll be a few more this time.

Even if you can’t attend all the shows, I’ll help you keep up, with performance reviews (and, in all likelihood, a weather report or two) posted on my blog (eagletimes.com) as the festival moves forward.

I’ve also set up a Twitter feed (@localrhythms) to share real time highlights, from Thursday’s “Night of Blues in Bellows Falls” through the acoustic Meeting House show with Fred and the amazing Jeffrey Foucault on Sunday morning.

In between, I’ll share the lowdown on the great discoveries as they happen.

That said, don’t take my word for it – come to the festival.  The all-day show on Saturday behind Rockingham’s Everyday Inn is your best bet, with an entire day and night of music led by some great female performers (Jenee Halstead, Red Molly, Carolyn Herring and the Sweetback Sisters).

Complementing the ladies are Fred and his band, Roger Marin, the Bottle Rockets (I missed them last year, much to my regret) and the eagerly anticipated Hayes Carll.

Can’t commit an entire day?  The Friday night tent show features the inimitable Junior Brown and his strange and wonderful “guit-steel” hybrid axe – and of course, Fred.

The whole shebang costs about half of what you’d pay to see Billy Joel and Elton John at the Razor, and it’s a heck of a lot more intimate.

Out of all the events I cover over the course of the year, Roots is my favorite.

Fans arrive from as far away as Europe, and music continues in the parking lots (or in the case of tonight’s post-Opera House jam session at PK’s Tavern, the clubs) long after the show’s over.

Here are some other diversions:

Thursday: Open Mike, Salt hill Pub – This is the final Lebanon open session for awhile, but at the Newport ShP, Toby Moore of Yer Mother’s Onion recently began hosting a Thursday open mike night, so it’s all good.  The pub on the green celebrates six years in business June 19 with Sirsy, and the Tuohy brothers just announced plans to open a Hanover location.  Busy, busy.

Friday:  Joe Stallsmith & Heepe Gareau, Jesse’s – Two members of the fine Spare Change bluegrass combo host a new all-acoustic session, the second night of music at the Hanover restaurant in addition to the weekly open microphone hosted by Tad Davis (Thursdays).  Joe’s been making music since the days of Joe’s Waterworks, a place some old-timers are sure to remember.  Great picking and singing are sure to ensue.

Saturday: Second Wind, Orford River Jam – The ninth year for this wonderful all-acoustic festival at the Pastures Campground features the duo of Terry Ray Gould and Suzy Hastings performing “original, public domain, and/or ‘permission granted’ material” as per the festival guidelines.  The music happens every week through Labor Day, with a big chili cook-off scheduled for September 12.   This is a great way to relax in a bucolic setting.

Sunday: Brad Paisley, Meadowbrook U.S. Cellular Pavilion – When Paisley released “5th Gear” in 2007, I commented that he “could play Keith Urban under the table,” prompting a bit of outrage from Keith fans.  Last year, Paisley and Urban collaborated on “Start a Band,” the lead single from the mostly instrumental “Play” album.  I stand by my assessment of Brad’s guitar prowess.  Also appearing is Dierks Bentley, another talented picker; Jimmy Wayne opens.

Tuesday:  Chosen Vale Trumpet Seminar, Enfield Shaker Museum – The first concert of the annual gathering of musicians devoted solely to the trumpet features Ellsworth Smith Silver Medalist Kazuaki Kikumoto performing selections by Krzywicki, Torelli, Hindemith, Takemitsu and Brandt, accompanied by pianist Ayako Yoda.  Chosen Vale runs through June 28 and includes four concerts.  Master classes are also open to public observers.

Wednesday: Murphy’s Blues, Lyman Point Park Band Shell – Summer means music heads outdoors in downtown White River Junction.  This week a blues combo that functioned as the house band at the old Rynborn in Keene before it closed awhile back.   They remind me a bit of Roomful of Blues, playing traditional jump, swing and boogie, as opposed to the pyrotechnics sometimes prevalent in the genre.

Roots on the River turns “X” – Fred X

FredEaglesmith - BobSmithCreditIt began as a simple idea – invite a much-loved troubadour to town for two shows, one acoustic, another electric. Fans would hear the word and head to Bellows Falls, Vermont.

Thus, the Fred Eaglesmith Weekend was born.

Fast-forward 10 years, and the festival, now known as Roots on the River, is “an institution,” in the words of its’ founder, Charlie Hunter.

Like any self-respecting institution, the 2009 edition has a Roman number – welcome, Fred X!

“This has legs now and I’d like to see it continue indefinitely as long as Fred wants to come play,” says Ray Massucco, who took over full time production responsibilities from Charlie for last year’s show.

Well, perhaps “took over” doesn’t quite describe it.

Writes Hunter in the current program, “after the year of the Incredible Humidity and the year of the Thunderstorm That Nearly Killed Everybody and the year of the Continual Inundation That Resulted In A Lot Of Rotten Hay Being Dumped On Top Of A Lot Of Mud I was ready for the Year Of Not Doing A Festival, but Ray Massucco would have none of that, stepped in, and took it over.”

“Everyone else stepped back,” replies the modest Massucco.  “Seriously, I did not intend to run it, I just wanted to help support it to keep it going.”

His first effort was unmarred by the challenges that Hunter sometimes faced, with mostly good weather and many memorable performances.

“It was too much to give up after one year,” Ray says, “so I stayed on.”

This year’s festival kicks off Thursday, June 11 at the Bellows Falls Opera House, with “A Night of Blues in Vermont,” featuring Sonny Landreth and folksinger Chris Smither, each a headliner in their own right (Smither sold out a Chester show last February); Josh Maiocco opens.

Maiocco and Ezra Veitch are festival veterans.  The pair’s latest band, Ninja Monkey, play a free show with Spike Dogtooth at the BF Farmers’ Market Friday afternoon.

Friday evening, the music moves to the tent behind Rockingham’s Everyday Inn for the first of three performances by Fred Eaglesmith and his band, the Flying Squirrels.  Joining Fred is Junior Brown and his “guit-steel,” a one-of-a-kind hybrid of lap steel and six-string guitar.

The Roger Marin Band opens; they perform again Saturday.  Marin has appeared at every Roots festival since the first in 2000, both solo and as a member of Eaglesmith’s band (he was a Flying Squirrel for six years).

Says Massucco, “Friday night is also Junior Brown’s birthday, which should ramp up the performance level.”

The festival’s focal point is the all-day Saturday show in the Rockingham tent, which features a bevy of female talent this year.  The high estrogen level reflects a “need to balance out the Thursday, Friday and Sunday shows a little bit,” Ray says, “Besides, they are all awesomely talented and we only book the best of the best.”

The “best of the best” includes Red Molly, who regularly draw crowds to Boccelli’s in downtown Bellows Falls, and Caroline Herring, a singer/songwriter whose most recent album (“Lantana”) has drawn comparisons to Lucinda Williams.

Also appearing are the retro-country Sweetback Sisters.  “They could be the surprise hit of the festival,” says Massucco.  The Brooklyn-based band will be selling copies of “Chicken Ain’t Chicken” – officially set for release June 30th on Signature Sounds.

Newcomer Jenee Halstead, who secured an invite after wowing a Boccelli’s audience earlier this year, brings an impressive collection of character-based songs from her indie debut, “The River Grace.”

Saturday closes with sets from Hayes Carll, the Bottle Rockets and Fred Eaglesmith.

According to this year’s program, Carll’s set in 2003 garnered “the best reception of any first time performer in the nine year history of the festival.”  Most recently, Carll released “Trouble In Mind” on the Lost Highway label, home to Van Morrison, Willie Nelson and Ryan Adams.  The record features the rollicking “Bad Liver and a Broken Heart” and the hilarious (or heretical, take your pick) “She Left Me For Jesus.” The latter won the Americana Music Association’s Song of the Year award, and spawned a brilliant music video, a send-up of the “Two Timers” reality show.

The Bottle Rockets incendiary 2008 set made them an obvious choice to be Saturday’s penultimate band.  Last year, the Festus, Missouri band was asking: “What the hell is a Bellows Falls? I think they took the gig for shits and giggles,” says Ray.  “After the set and around last call, they said this was the best night on the tour.”

“This year, they called us and wanted to know if there was any chance they could come back.  I decided to move them to Saturday to rev up the late show again.  I really think Fred kicks it up a notch when there is another competent artist ahead of him,” says Massucco.

Fred’s set could extend past midnight, and fans hanging around post-show are often surprised by impromptu jam sessions in the rooms, and sometimes the parking lot, of the Everyday Inn.

Since the festival began in 2000, an acoustic show has closed things out on Sunday morning, featuring Eaglesmith and another luminous act.  Last year, Mary Gauthier did the early set; this year, it’s songsmith Jeffrey Foucault, who recently released a tasty John Prine tribute album (“Shoot the Moon Right Between the Eyes”).

Even in an economy tough enough to prod Live Nation into “fee-free Wednesdays” (with cheap seats for everyone from Kid Rock to Aerosmith), Roots on the River thrives.

Ticket prices are one reason.  They range from $25 for the single shows (Saturday’s all-day affair is $40), to $105 for all four days. There are still a few $135 deluxe preferred seating packages left.

“I’d pay double the price of admission for either Thursday or Friday’s shows,” says Massucco.   “Throw in the kid’s ticket pricing on Saturday (6-14 year olds are $10, under 5 free), student and senior pricing on all tickets and the family cap (of $100) on Saturday, and this is the best entertainment value of the summer, bar none.”

But it’s Mr. Eaglesmith, the man who gives “Fred X” its name, who makes it all work.  “His shows are at an incredible quality level right now,” says Ray, with a band that’s “exceptionally talented, tightly knit and creative, not to mention young.  I think they push Fred to new limits as the leader.”

Local Rhythms – Keeping The Live Music Flame Alive in Southern Vermont

raym1As the 2006 Roots of the River Festival wound down, Charlie Hunter told me he was ready for a rest.  Half a year later, he was still promoting shows in Bellows Falls.

But Charlie was working on a graceful exit.

“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,” he told me.  “My hope is … he can step up to the plate.“

That “guy” was self-described “recovering lawyer” Ray Massucco – and boy, did he ever.

Ray’s Vermont Festivals LLC is gearing up for another long weekend of Fred Eaglesmith and friends, and planning a bevy of local shows in the coming months.

He couldn’t persuade a well-known shipping company to sponsor “Fred X” – Ray’s nickname for the 10th annual show.  But everything else is firing on all cylinders.

Slide guitar ace Sonny Landreth shares the bill with Chris Smither at a Bellows Falls Opera House show opening the June event.  Red Molly and Josh Maiocco are confirmed for the weekend, while negotiations are ongoing with other big names.

Upcoming shows at Boccelli’s on the Canal include Mark Erelli with Stephen Chipman on February 6, and a great double bill featuring Boccelli’s favorite Chris O’Brien and the local debut of folksinger Jenee Halstead set for February 28.

Seth Glier and Roots show-stealer Mary Gauthier visit in March and April, respectively.

Though Massucco is continuing Charlie Hunter’s Flying Under Radar tradition of bringing the best up and coming Americana talent to southern Vermont, he’s put his own unique stamp on things.

Last fall, he persuaded the Vermont Symphony Orchestra to make its first-ever Bellows Falls appearance.  They loved the newly renovated Opera House, and will return for an encore performance in October.

Massucco says the region lacks the population density to book two shows every month.  But he’s encouraged that music fans from as far away as Northampton, Massachusetts are making the trek to Vermont for something other than skiing and leaf peeping.

As June approaches, I asked Ray how it felt to be a seasoned pro.

“I’ll tell you when I get there,” he answered modestly, cautioning that it will only be his third festival.  “I need to match Charlie’s seven, but if they are all this much fun, I’ll keep going.”

I’m betting he’ll get there.

What’s up for the weekend?

Thursday: Sweet Honey in the Rock, Rollins Chapel – The gospel quintet perform Friday at the Hop; today’s appearance is a special outreach called “The Power of Song: Singing in the African-American Tradition.” It’s an interactive vocal workshop demonstrating “how music crosses class divides to develop cooperative spirit in African-American communities.” As Pete Townshend sings – you can dance while your knowledge is growing.

Friday – (Who Are The) Brain Police, 7 Barrel Brewery – “No f-ing ballads!” is this cheeky band’s slogan.  They borrow both their name and spirit from Frank Zappa, but oddly their song list doesn’t include anything from the Mothers of Invention.  They do cover everything else, from AC/DC to the Dead Milkmen, and keep the fun quotient high.  A set highlight is their breakneck rendition of Ween’s “Stroker Ace.”

Saturday – Spectris, Stone Church (Brattleboro) – A five-band show includes local power trio Spectris, Curst, A Breath Beyond Broken, and In Memory Of Pluto – with one more to be added. This one’s for people who like their music hard and unrelenting.  It’s presented by Graveyard Booking, which has plans for at least two more Brattleboro shows in the coming months, and clear ambitions for many more.

Sunday: Click Jam, Peter Christian’s Tavern – This weekly jam session got underway at the end of December.  It features Click Horning, who fronted Night Kitchen back in the day and now leads an eponymous trio. Bill Staines and Harvey Reid, among others, have covered Click’s songs.  Former Night Kitchen member Gerry Putnam stops by occasionally, along with other friends.  It’s a nice new addition to the local scene.

Tuesday: Acoustic Coalition, Murphy Farm – This loose affiliation embodies the Upper Valley scene. Most of the players at this weekly jam session, based in Quechee for the winter, gig with other bands – some with several. Dave Clark often leads the festivities (though a few of his weekly missives have come from out of state); Dave’s Yellow House Media website, a great source for all things local and musical, contains a sampling of the inspired fun that transpires.

Wednesday: The Year of Magical Thinking, Briggs Opera House – Northern Stage presents this devastating account of grief and loss.  Joan Didion’s husband John Gregory Dunne died suddenly just days after their daughter entered the hospital with pneumonia (she died of pancreatitis less than a year later).  In writing about coping and caring for her sick daughter, Didion employs characteristic precision; the result is a masterpiece. Vanessa Redgrave performed the one-woman show on Broadway,

Roots Wrap

Plentiful sun, widely varied music, good food and good vibes prevailed at this year’s Roots on the River Festival in Rockingham. Saturday’s day-long concert was capped by a Fred Eaglesmith performance that fans called his “best in years”. Local musician Ezra Veitch helped out when regular Flying Squirrels drummer, Kori Heppner, left unexpectedly on Friday. Ezra earned high marks as a quick study.

Robbie Fulks played solo, mixing humorous songs, such as a cover of Cher’s “Do You Believe?” and the creepy story of “Godfrey, the Amateur Children’s Magician,” with beautiful and poignant performances. “Let’s Kill Saturday Night,” an early alt-country hit, got a stripped-down treatment, and the unreleased “That’s Where I’m From,” which hushed the crowd, sounded like George Strait’s next hit single.

Promoter Ray Massucco was pleased with the turnout for all four days. The Lori McKenna/Mark Erelli opener was well attended, and the Fred & the Flying Squirrels/Bottle Rockets double bill was, he said, “the best Friday ever.”

Sunday’s Meeting House show was also sold out, with Fred Eaglesmith and Mary Gauthier, and included a special guest appearance by Diana Jones (“My Remembrance of You”), who joined Fred for one song.

Sarah Borges and her band The Broken Singles whipped through a set of high-energy country rock that won the crowd over in a big way. After Borges played, her merchandise sold out and had to be replenished. If Avril Lavigne went twangy, she might sound like Sarah, who had amazing chemistry with her band (based in Boston, they’ve played together six years).

Laid-back Steve Forbert acted like he was in a living room, not a concert stage, as he loped though songs that touched on the political (“Baghdad Dream”, “Good Planets Are Hard to Find”) and the romantic (most notably his biggest hit, “Romeo’s Tune”). Fans shouted out requests, most of which he good-naturedly honored, though one caused him to pause thoughtfully. “That’s a good idea,” he said, “but I’m going to play this one instead.”

After playing a refreshing set of old time country music, members of the Starline Rhythm Boys relaxed in the guitar tent and tried a few instruments. The band kept things early twentieth century for their performance, playing songs like “One Dime at a Time” and touting their latest record, “Drunk Tank,” which they plan to release as a 45 – their new album is also on vinyl.

Wearing pearls and a wry smile, and playing a guitar signed by Loretta Lynn, Eilen Jewell time-traveled to Depression-era musical times. She played several songs from last year’s “Letters From Sinners & Strangers,” as well as selections from her upcoming gospel album. Like Steve Forbert before her, she jokingly asked that no one take pictures – “I’m way too sweaty”.

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 – Dreaming of June

sun_flowers.jpgThe net effect of winter has my brain feeling like a frost-heaved road. I’ve had one or two glimpses of my lawn since November, and a few 40-degree days strung together make me punch-drunk.

Let the temperature cross 50, and I’m hallucinating cabanas and boat drinks.

Sunday’s bright sky got me thinking about summer music. I know, spring is barely a week old old, but that’s how I roll. While my neighbors are measuring flowerbeds and opening seed orders, I’m waiting for the snow to melt through my pool cover and checking the price of chlorine.

That’s when I’m not thinking about stretching out on a lawn to watch bands play.

There’s reason to be excited. June’s barely two months away, and the festivals returning for 2008 are better than ever.

Some cabin-fevered folks can barely wait. LimboFest lands in Northampton, Massachusetts on April 12, with the Alchemystics headlining a day of funky beats. It’s a little early for an outdoor event, but the promoters promise a heated tent for protection from the elements.

The Strange Creek Campout, a two-day, tie-dyed delight happens May 23-24 in Greenfield, with Dead-alikes Max Creek, the bluesy Ryan Mountbleau Band, Strangefolk and local heroes the Kind Buds.

At the end of May, the Discovery Jazz Festival kicks off in Burlington. The lineup is still under construction – Marcia Ball and the New Groove Orchestra are set. Organizers hope to unveil a statue of Big Joe Burrell, a cornerstone of the Vermont music scene until his death in 2005.

June is the sweet spot, starting with the (world famous) Roots on the River gathering. This year’s “Fred Fest” again features Fred Eaglesmith leading a few different bands, along with a Lori McKenna/Mark Erelli show at the Bellows Falls Opera House, as well as Steve Forbert, Mary Gauthier, Eilen Jewell and others performing outdoors.

Meadowbrook began with a bunch of chairs in an open field. Now it’s on a lot of best venue lists, with a roof, good sound, a bar and corporate sponsor. ZZ Top (June 19) and an updated Volunteer Jam with Charlie Daniels (June 21), help welcome the bikers to the Lakes Region.

Robert Plant is touring with Alison Krauss. In the interim, her Union Station band mates miust make their own way. Dobro master Jerry Douglas swings through the area in mid-April, while “Man of Constant Sorrow” writer (and native Vermonter) Dan Tymynski headlines the four-day Jenny Brook Bluegrass Festival in Weston beginning June 26.

Here are some things to make the wait for summer go faster:

Thursday: Spring Savories, Claremont Opera House – Piano player John Lovejoy serenades as patrons partake in an “epicurean adventure” that includes food from area restaurants and wines provided by the NH State Liquor Commission. The event, a fundraiser for the region’s most beautiful (and recently re-opened) Opera House, gets better every year.

Friday: Toots and the Maytals, Lebanon Opera House (moved to April 8, 2008) If reggae has a Hall of Fame, the first inductees would likely include this band, if for no other reason that their association with “The Harder They Come,” a film that introduced the Jamaican music to the world in the early 1970s. Though not as famous as Bob Marley, musicians like the Clash and Specials covered their songs.

Saturday: Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion, Boccelli’s – This duo, led by Arlo’s daughter and Woody’s granddaughter, was a surprise opening act for last fall’s Greg Brown show at the Opera House. Ever since, requests have poured in to bring them back. The precocious pair can play everything from pure country to foot-stomping mountain music.

Sunday: Spare Change, Canoe Club – Joe Stallsmith’s name comes up a lot in the history of area music. He fronts a few different bands; this one has an old-time feel and features some incredible picking. The three-piece – guitar, mandolin and fiddle – moves from Nashville to Texas, with a long walk along the Blue Ridge Mountains. Fire up the Orange Blossom special, and enjoy some Americana.

Monday: Songwriter’s Club, Parker House – There’s a great scene in the film “Once” where a musical duo looking for financing perform their song for a banker, who responds by serenading them with one of his own (and gives them the money). Somewhere in the recesses of everyone’s mind lurks a hit. This monthly song-polishing group is run by Yellow House Media maven Dave Clark; bring your hooks, lines and stinkers, he says.

Tuesday: Gym Class Heroes, U Mass Lowell – This hip hop band made a splash with “Cupid’s Chokehold,” which pilfers Supertramp’s “Breakfast in America” and mixes it up with contemporary angst, helped out nicely by Fall Out Boy’s Patrick Stump. I like the fact that they play their own instruments, a rarity in the genre. Their sense of humor is fun, and it’s pretty much bling-free – my kind of rap.

Roots on the River Preview

fred.jpgThe Roots on the River Festival has a new promoter as it enters the eighth year, but the basic premise is still intact: pack all the music that fits into four days, each capped with a different flavor of Fred Eaglesmith.

 

The show began in 2000 as a way for promoter Charlie Hunter to quench his appetite for Eaglesmith’s hardscrabble tunes. The inaugural “FredFest” lasted two days. Over the past few years, it has grown to four, and includes many local and nationally known performers.

This year’s Roots on the River kicks off next Thursday with “Vermont Night,” featuring Josh Maiocco, Scott Ainslie, the Starline Rhythm Boys and the Sandra Wright Band. Maiocco played last year’s festival with Ingrid’s Ruse, in one of their last shows as a band. These days, he’s the host of PK’s Tuesday open microphone night at in downtown Bellows Falls. Ainslie is both a teacher and performer of American blues music, and the Starline Rhythm Boys have drawn strong notice for their faithful honky-tonk sound.

Headliner Sandra Wright has called Vermont home for some time now, but the heart and soul of her music remains her native Memphis.

Friday’s “Live At the Farmer’s Market” set is a Fred Eaglesmith Band alumni night of sorts. Both Roger Marin and Willie P. Bennett played with Eaglesmith in years past, and the 90-minute “Fred & Friends” set that closes the show should be full of happy endings.

The all-day Saturday show has been bedeviled by rain in the recent past, but that hasn’t dampened anyone’s spirits. Gandalf Murphy and the Slambovian Circus of Dreams returns after a year’s absence. Joe Gee makes the move from the parking lot to the stage, and the Dan Whitley Band will try to re-capture the energy that made their one of the most well-received sets at last year’s festival.

There’s also a lot of female energy on the bill. Red Molly, who play the second set of the day, is made up of three women who met around a campfire at the Falcon Ridge Festival. After being chosen as an emerging artist there, they’ve gone on to open for the likes of David Wilcox and Jonathan Edwards, and released a new album this spring..

Roots on the River has a long-held reputation for presenting talented artists on the verge of greater success. A few years back it was the Greencards, and last year Crooked Still played a rousing set. Both of those bands are scheduled to headline the Lebanon Opera House this autumn. On this year’s stage, Eilen Jewell seems poised for similar heights.

Story-songwriter Chris Knight writes vividly about his native Kentucky. His songs have been covered by everyone from Montgomery Gentry and John Anderson to Randy Travis and Confederate Railroad. But in his hands, they’re all his.

Iris DeMent, who performs just prior to Fred Eaglesmith, can cast a mood like Townes Van Zand – her songs could be rated with razor blades instead of stars. She should be a perfect foil for the happy-go-lucky Fred, whose Saturday set typically chugs like a runaway train. There aren’t many performers able to match his energy level.

Sunday, Eaglesmith dials things down to a more peaceful level in an all-acoustic set, sharing the Rockingham Meeting House stage with Juno nominee David Olney.

The Thursday and Saturday shows take place in Rockingham behind the Everyday Inn. Full weekend packages and individual tickets are still available.

NOTE: Friday’s shows have changed – it’s now Roger Marin and Chris Knight opening for Fred and Friends at the Everyday Inn evening show.  Also, the free Farmer’s Market set features the Roger Marin Band and Joe Gee (who also performs Saturday).

Eilen Jewell Coming To Roots on the River

eilenjewellsmall.jpgEilen Jewell’s songs seem preserved in amber and channeled from a distant time, her voice wise and weary. When Jewell, who performs next Saturday at the Roots on the River Festival, sings “So Long Blues,” it sounds like Memphis Minnie in 1941, not a 26-year old from Idaho.

Few records generated the kind of buzz Jewell’s debut CD “Boundary County” did when it came out last year. The Boston media fell over itself to anoint her as a new Americana queen, and Signature Sounds picked up the independently-released disc for distribution.

That’s the kind of attention the Northampton, Massachusetts label has only lavished on one other artist – Josh Ritter. Like Ritter, Signature’s Jim Olsen signed Jewell soon thereafter; her new disc, “Letters From Sinners and Strangers” is due for summer release.

All the attention, says Jewell, “surprised me, because in such a short amount of time it took us a lot of places. It was kind of a magic record for us.”

Eilen (rhymes with feelin’) Jewell’s musical career almost didn’t happen. She’s written songs since her teenage years, busked in college and even went to Venice, California to play in the streets. But she gave it up, went back home to Idaho, then moved to Massachusetts when a friend promised to help her find a job.

“I stayed in the Berkshires for about nine months before I started to feel it was too small,” she said. “I wanted to start performing music. I’d stopped busking since I’d left LA and it was making me feel a little aimless. I decided to move to Boston because everyrone said that was the great music town.”

There, she met drummer (and current manager) Jason Beek, who helped her put together a studio band that includes some of the region’s best roots musicians – guitarist Jerry Miller, along with violin player Daniel Kellar and upright bassist Johnny Sciasica of the Tarbox Ramblers.

“I wasn’t sure for awhile if I really wanted to have a band,” Jewell says. “I didn’t want to be a band leader – I’m not good at telling people what to do.”

Once “Boundary Country” was completed, the band did a few shows and immediately discovered an obvious onstage chemistry. “I feel really lucky for that,” says Jewell. “You can’t make that happen. You can find the best musicians in the world but you can’t really know if you click as a group. Luckily I didn’t have to go through much trial and error.”

Asked how she came to write songs that sound, in the words of Peter Mulvey, “like they’re being sung by a 65-year old woman,” Jewell says with a laugh, “that’s a really good question. I’m not sure how it happened.”

She cites Bob Dylan, Hank Williams and Lucinda Williams (whom many have compared her to), but adds, “It’s not like I consciously go out and say I want to write a song in the style of this or that musician. I hold them up as a standard to aim for, and the themes they try to write about.”

When she was 15, she discovered her father’s old record collection in a box in the attic. “I saw Dylan’s Nashville Skyline and thought I’ve heard of this guy,” she says. She had to find a turntable at a yard sale so she could listen to them, as there wasn’t one at her house. Her mother and father preferred the television.

“We weren’t a very musical family,” she explains.

Her father, however, did provide young Eilen with an experience that forever shaped her.music. For a long family driving trip, he brought along Dylan’s three disc “Bootleg Series” – and nothing else.

“That was the only soundtrack on this road trip, and it sunk in,” says Jewell. “I found myself reading all the liner notes and wondering who is Woody Guthrie? Once you start doing that you begin to realize that there’s this whole family tree – Bessie Smith, Robert Johnson…”

Despite all the recent attention, she’s keeping things in perspective. She’s excited about summer shows in Chicago and her hometown of Boise, both firsts. XM Radio invited her to play live in the studio later this year and, says Jewell, “we just found out that we’re gonna be opening for Loretta Lynn at the Calvin Theatre in Northampton this fall. She’s a hero of mine.”.

“I’ll know that I’ve arrived when I can quit the day job and have a little place with a garden and a guest bedroom.”

“I’m not very lofty when it comes to ambition,” she continues. “I’m a lifer. I’m gonna do this music thing no matter what it brings me. I want to be comfortable and only do what I love. I can’t see needing much more outside of that. Whatever it takes to get there is good for me.”

Local Rhythms – Summer Festivals Coming

fredfest.jpgForget the recent burst of warm, sunny weather. To my tune-addled brain, spring fever kicks in when summer music festival announcements begin arriving in my inbox.

Get ready to dust off the low-slung lawn chairs, it’s going to be a great season. .

I was a bit worried when Charlie Hunter suggested the annual FredFest, formally known as Roots on the River, might change signficantly this year. The only apparent difference is a new producer, Ray Massuco.

The caliber of music is unchanged.

I’d daresay it’s better, with past favorites Gandalf Murphy, up and comers Red Molly and the awesomely talented Eilen Jewell, local heroes Josh Maiocco and Scot Ainslie, and of course, the many faces of Fred Eaglesmith highlighting a four-day bash that begins June 7 in downtown Bellows Falls.

The next weekend Moodus, Connecticut hosts an all-Cajun/Zydeco festival that’s worth the trip if you need to channel your innner Boozoo. The three day bash, which starts June 15, features 10 perfomers, including Keith Frank, Brian Jack and Step Rideau.

Out in Weston, Vermont the Jenny Brook Bluegrass Festival returns, with traditional music from the Gibson Brothers, Leroy Troy, Buddy Merriam and festival hosts the Seth Sawyer Band and the Sawyer Brothers. The long weekend, produced by Candi Sawyer (notice a trend here?), begins June 21.

One of my personal favorites, the Green River Festival in Greenfield, Massachusetts, kicks off with a free Crooked Still/Eilen Jewell show July 19, then begins in earnest with a Zydeco bash featuring the Subdudes and Terence Simian the next night.

On Saturday, there’s hot air balloons and a flat-out amazing lineup of players. Blues legend Buddy Guy headlines, along with cutting edge alt-country from Southern Culture on the Skids, petite powerhouse Erin McKeown, the Kennedys and a performer I would crawl a mile over broken glass to see, Neko Case.

Acts are still being confirmed for the big daddy of regional shows, Falcon Ridge, which starts July 26th at its new home, Dodds Farm in the Berkshires. FredFest performers Red Molly and Gandalf Murphy are set, along with Marshall Crenshaw, Eddie from Ohio, Terri Hendrix and her legendary musical partner Lloyd Maines, and John Gorka.

A Falcon Ridge “Most Wanted” preview tour featuring Ellis, Pat Wictor and the aforementioned Red Molly (who met over a Falcon Ridge campfire), stops at Middle Earth Music Hall May 9.

The best part is you could buy tickets for all of these feastivals for about the price of one good seat for the Police’s Fenway Park concert.

What else is brewing this weekend?

Thursday: Billy Rosen Quartet, Sophie & Zeke’s – This jazz ensemble wowed the crowd the first time they stopped by this downtown eatery, so they’ve been asked back. First-rate players all, they step through standards and give modern songs a special touch. There’s much more music ahead at S&Z’s in the coming months, including the return of Pete Merrigan in May.

Friday: Rock Bottom Band, Electra – If you’re ready for the country, this is the place to go Friday Rock Bottom was named Country Music Band of the Year in 2006 by the New Hampshire Country Music Association, so it’s clear they know their stuff. Put on some cowboy boots, put a crease in those jeans, and practice your Electric Slide moves.

Saturday: Pulse Prophets, Salt Hill – Another interesting “get” for my favorite Upper Valley eclectic music spot, this Burlington band calls their sound an “organic and celestial fusion of funk, fegg, hip hop, Latin, and Afro-beat, with a touch of electronica. This musical stew has been known to pack a dance floor – it’s all groove to me.

Sunday: Red Fox Session Band, Boccelli’s – A local band celebrates the one year anniversary of this Bellows Falls restaurant, an afternoon (3-7 PM) buffet dinner featuring a bountiful table of food and all-around good vibrations. Boccelli’s, of course, is BF’s new home of live music; for a town that’s had its fair share of recent hard knocks, this is a welcome renaissance.

Tuesday: Colin McCaffrey, Canoe Club – This fine Vermont folksinger performs solo tonight in downtown Hanover, but look for his high energy band, the Stone Cold Roosters, at area venues in the coming weeks, celebrating the release of their new CD, “Out of the Woods.”. Their lineup regional all-stars includes Ted Mortimer and (occasionally) Linda Boudreault of Dr. Burma, former Breakway players Peter Riley and Scot Hopkins and many other hot pickers.

Wednesday: Brandi Carlile, Higher Ground – She’s the latest industry full-court press, with a “Grey’s Anatomy” video, Paste Magazine essay contest and stops on all the late-night televison shows, including Leno. Is she any good? Perhaps, but all this hype will probably bleed it out of her. Such is the music business.