Local Rhythms – Best Live Shows of 2008

Vienna Teng

Music thrived in 2008.  For every show on my best of list, there was at least one I wished I’d seen.  It was also a year of discovery.  Almost half of the top ten includes performers I witnessed for the first time.

These evenings of live music proved to me that the creative spark is alive and well, even if the business is in the doldrums.

In chronological order, here are my 10 favorite live music experiences of the past year:

Gully Boys @ Middle Earth Music Hall (2 February) – This working class band captures the essence of the area scene.  Every member has a day job, and they get together because they want to.  “If it ain’t fun, it ain’t worth doing” is their motto.  This annual “reunion” night, at the soon-to-close Bradford Hobbit Hole, was particularly inspiring, with a Dead-length set that ran past 1 AM.

Jenee Halstead House Concert (19 April) – Akin to the Renaissance system of patronage (without the religious guilt), affairs like this one, in an elegant Milton, Massachusetts home, helped struggling musicians earn a living and make fans – one at a time.  Lit by 28 candles, Halstead and her band took the intimate gathering back in time with songs from her wonderful album, “The River Grace.”

Trixie Whitley @ Bellows Falls Opera House (26 April) – Nothing prepared me for the raw emotion of this night, a tribute to the memory of Chris Whitley.  Trixie seemed to muster courage and strength with each note. By the end of the evening, she’d won the crowd as well as the artists who’d come to play her father’s music, memorably sitting in with her brother Dan and headliner Alejandro Escovedo.

Robert Plant & Alison Krause @ B of A Pavilion (5 June) – There was no Led Zeppelin reunion this year, and it likely won’t happen in 2009 thanks to Plant.  He’s having too much fun with T-Bone Burnett, Buddy Miller and fiddler/vocalist extraordinaire Krauss.  The acoustics at this waterfront show weren’t the best, but the sheer joy on stage made up for that.  “Black Dog” never sounded so good.

Sarah Borges @ Roots on the River (7 June) – Borges and her rockabilly boogie band, The Singles, provided non-stop energy for her early set.  The festival was blessed with perfect weather and stellar talent, but Sarah stole the show – at least until Fred Eaglesmith walked on stage to remind everyone why Roots on the River is known far and wide as “Fredfest.”

Mavis Staples @ Green River Festival (19 July) – She marched with Martin Luther King during the civil rights movement, which she called “the struggle,” and in the weeks following Barack Obama’s Democratic primary win, Staples performed with extra punch and power.  She reinvented “For What It’s Worth,” added a personal note to “Down In Mississippi” and brought many in the crowd to tears.

Collective Soul @ Meadowbrook (9 August) – In a de facto battle of the bands with Live and Blues Traveler, this sonic force of nature came out on top.  Toward the end of their set, lead singer Ed Roland hauled over a dozen fans up on the 8-foot high stage, to the shock and dismay of security.  One of the best nights at the region’s number one outdoor music facility, which won’t stay a hidden gem for long.

Lindsey Buckingham @ Lebanon Opera House (12 October) – Tickets for the upcoming Fleetwood Mac reunion are trending towards 300 dollars, but I doubt a night at the Enormodome could top this intimate show. Buckingham indulged his muse with several obscure Mac nuggets, performed multiple encores, and even took time out to sign a fan’s 35 year old copy of “Buckingham/Nicks”.

Molly Venter & Cahalen David Morrison @ Canoe Club (3 December) – Two musicians who’d never met before this night, thrown together by circumstance and management, traded songs while a room that often buries the talent on stage with dinner conversation stopped and took notice.  It wasn’t perfect, but it felt magical nonetheless.

Vienna Teng @ Iron Horse (8 December) – My best night of 2008 was, coincidentally, the last.  In a perfect world Teng, a literate songwriter and scary good piano player, would be a star on the order of Sarah MacLachlan, whom many have compared her to. Instead, she was on a 5-show club tour with Peter Bradley Adams, with nothing more luxurious than XM radio in the rental car towing her trailer from town to town.

Local Rhythms – Upper Valley CATV Adds “Homegrown” Music

Back before I started writing this column, I received my first inklings of the local music scene via videotaped performances from the Orford River Jam, an annual summer event held at the Pastures Campground along the Connecticut River.

The Claremont public access channel played it at odd times – an hour or so of first-rate bluegrass music, country rock or folk songs. Good times, great players – right in my own backyard.

This year’s River Jam series begins Saturday, June 14 with Second Wind, and showcases several of the area’s best bands before it winds up at the end of August. The full schedule is on the web at http://www.thepastures.com.

But that’s not what I want to talk about this week.

Community television stations, fortunately, don’t have to be limited to city council meetings and school events. I’ve always thought of my local channel as a primitive YouTube, hosting content from anyone brave enough to submit it.

Yellow House Media is far and away the local music scene’s best friend, and recently they began producing “Homegrown” for community access television in the Upper Valley. The first installment focuses on New Hampshire native Jeremiah McLane, accordionist and keyboard player for the Celtic roots band Nightingale. It includes clips from the group’s recent Lebanon Opera House performance, and a sit-down chat with McLane, Effie Cummings and Yellow House founder Dave Clark.

I’m starting to suspect that Dave Clark is a rural version of the Michael Keaton character in “Multiplicity” – how else can one person maintain the region’s best music web site, produce a television show and play in five or six different bands (including Juke Joynt, mentioned below)?

And that’s not even his day job.

He can and does, and we are richer for it. A second installment of “Homegrown,” featuring the recent “Blues Summit” at Salt Hill Pub with Johnny Bishop, Ted Mortimer and Ed Eastridge, is complete and should air soon.

Many’s the time I’ve left that club thinking, “I wish this performance could be shared” – now it can.

Last Saturday, Dave’s long-time band the Gully Boys recorded their set at Bentley’s for a future show.

If you don’t receive Upper Valley CATV Channel 8, you can watch “Homegrown” on the web via video-sharing site Vimeo, or at yellowhousemedia.com.

You can also ask your local public access channel to carry it – that’s what I plan to do.

As for the coming weekend, here are some choices to consider:

Thursday: David Thorne Scott, Elixir – The Upper Valley is, I’m finding out, a veritable magnet for learned talent. In a couple of weeks, Enfield is hosting a trumpet summit with top young talent from Julliard, the New England Conservatory, Oberlin and other schools. In White River, David Thorne Scott is both a Berklee professor and a singer who can “swing like Sinatra and scat like a horn player,” according to one review.

Friday: High School Musical, Claremont Opera House – Few works have had the impact of this television musical – on ‘tweens, that is. The Disney juggernaut swept through suburban homes like a tsunami. Tonight and tomorrow, local kids who bopped to this update of “Grease” on television bring it to the stage. The Performer’s Playground presentation features talent from Newport and Claremont singing and dancing in harmony.

Saturday: Red Hot Juba, Salt Hill Pub – Zoot suit riot at the Pub! This Burlington-based band is like the Squirrel Nut Zippers with a shot of good Irish whiskey poured in the glass. They break out of the swing mode every now and then to good effect. This band best exemplifies Josh Tuohy’s willingness to take risks when booking bands, one of the reasons both Salt Hills remain obvious choices for adventurous live music fans.

Sunday: Juke Joynt, Quechee Library – Take one part Foghat and one part Buddy Guy, mix it with a bodacious X factor that results from the chemistry of three players who do itinerant musical work all over the area, and you have this band. Juke Joynt focuses on original music inspired by the blues (when they were real) and classic rock (before it got cheesy). They perform as part of the Covered Bridge Marathon road race.

Monday: Dark Star Orchestra, Higher Ground – Bill Kreutzmann’s new project, KBR, and Bob Weir’s Ratdog are doing area shows, but if you’re looking for a Grateful Dead experience, this ultimate cover band may be the best choice. DSO selects a set list from a Dead performance, and re-create the show in its entirety – the hardcore fans usually know which night it is.

Tuesday: Justin Townes Earle, Iron Horse – He’s the son of Steve Earle, and his middle name comes from one of Americana’s undeniable legends, Townes Van Zandt (who shepherded his father early on). Thus, the bar is set pretty high, but the younger Earle delivers quite effectively on his debut, a throwback that’s a shade or two removed from Dad’s work.

Gully Boys – If It Ain’t Fun, It Ain’t Worth Doing

gullys.jpgThe Gully Boys’ secret of success, says founder and bandleader Bill Temple, is simple. Don’t worry about success.

“One of the reasons we’re still playing is we can’t take it that seriously,” he said before the band started their “14th Reunion Show” at the Middle Earth Music Hall Saturday night. “

Our biggest expectation is we’re going to have a good time and enjoy playing with each other.”

By those standards, it was “mission accomplished,” as five original members were joined by several others who’ve been Gully Boys through the years, romping through a spirited night of music. They played their favorite jam band songs, and also kicked around a few originals

A vintage Hammond organ helped spice up a track from “Diluvian Dreams,” their independently-released CD, which has sold a respectable 1,300 copies locally. “Big Rocks” is vintage Gully Boys, a kiss-off to the workaday world that the band escapes from every time they play.

The show also had a “Kumbaya” moment, when Temple introduced another original tune with the observation that “evolution is stronger than anything, but something that can help it along is love.” Then he coaxed the crowd to wave their arms high, “and suck some of that cosmic love from the sky.”

The only thing missing were cigarette lighters. The modern-day equivalent – glowing cell phone screens – might have been too anachronistic for this throng.

Other highlights included a slowed-down, sax-infused “Spanish Moon” that improved on the Little Feat original, and an epic-length version of “Scarlet Begonias” which morphed seamlessly into “Fire on the Mountain.” The floor in front of the stage stayed crowded with dancers all night. There were even a few toddlers, including Temple’s 2-year old son Gideon.

The party lasted till just a little before 1 in the morning, when rhythm guitarist (and original Gully Boy) John Sigarfoos unplugged. “That’s it, I’m done,” he reportedly said.

“He has a morning job,” explained Temple with a laugh.

That’s the essence of this working class band. They play when they can, because they want to. “We’re just a glorified garage band playing three-chord songs,” says Temple. “We haven’t had a rehearsal in two years.”

“I like to believe the music plays the band,” he says.

Keeping it simple keeps it going. “People have unrealistic expectations – that’s been the demise of a lot of good bands,” says Temple. “It’s such a buzz to be playing music for people; it makes you want to be a rock star. It’s like a drug – you get that hit and you want to play bigger gigs, you want to travel, you want all of it, the partying … realism doesn’t often enter into it.”

Their antidote to all that was apparent Saturday night, as the band squeezed every bit of pleasure out of tunes like “Wang Dang Doodle” and “Sugaree.” They’d start each set with a list of seven or eight songs, and end up playing five. With so many soloists on stage, that kept things both fair and fun.

The band employs no special effects, no posing or preening. They don’t even have a web site. “There’s only dial-up in South Royalton anyway,” Temple says.

The band coalesced around a Quechee show to memorialize Jerry Garcia, after the Grateful Dead guitarist died in 1995. They had so much fun that they moved the party to Seven Barrels Brewery. They still play the last Saturday of every month at the West Lebanon bar. “That’s what’s kept the band together – that gig,” says Temple.

In addition to Temple, two keyboard players, four bassists, six guitarists and a Spinal Tap-worthy eight drummers have done time with the band. There’s also been a harmonica player (original member Peter Meijer- his brother Rich joined on guitar four years ago) and a lone saxophonist.

By Temple’s count, 24 to 25 players have called themselves Gully Boys since the band’s loose beginnings in 1994.

Quite a few made the trip back for last weekend’s show, though the drummers are apparently the hardest to track down – and typically the quickest to leave.

“They have to haul the most stuff,” explains Temple matter-of-factly. “All the other factors – day jobs, families – and add to that you have to haul your drums, and take an extra hour to set up.”

So they burn out a little faster – and that’s fine, says Temple.

“If it ain’t fun, it ain’t worth doing.”

Rhythms of the River Brings Music, Awareness to WRJ

A series of concerts featuring area musicians and benefiting local charities continues this weekend at Lyman Point Park in White River Junction. Saturday’s show at the Hartford Band Stand features the Gully Boys, Kind Buds and the Black Moon Bear Drum Ensemble.

“Rhythms of the River” kicked of May 27th, when Wise Rockobili played. Proceeds went to the White River Partnership, a community-based environmental group. Saturday’s performance benefits Advance Transit. Admission is free, however. Money is raised primarily through donated concession stands, though several civic-minded businesses also help out.

Two more concerts are scheduled: Bow Thayer with Juke Joynt on September 2nd, and a September 29 finale, with a yet-to-be-named lineup.

The shows are the brainchild of Dave Clark, who saw an opportunity to showcase the park’s band shell and call attention to the Upper Valley music scene. The latter is an ongoing cause for Clark, a writer, publicist, and musician. He manages an email list that reaches over 1,000 live music fans. Since its launch a year ago, Clark says the “Music Lover’s List” has made a big impact on the burgeoning local scene.

“Our web traffic has doubled over the past six months,” he says. Clark’s yellowhousemedia.com site sports a performance calendar, covering dates from Burlington down to Brattleboro, and points in between. There are song samples from several performers as well, from the rootsy Bow Thayer to the Celtic-tinged Sam Moffatt. There’s also plenty of Clark’s own work from Acoustic Coalition and the Gully Boys.

“If you want to hear what’s going on locally, there’s no place to do it,” says Clark, who sees Yellow House as a “central place to sample local musicians.”
It’s a great way to get people thinking about live music, he says. “Once people know there’s a lot of good stuff out there, and it’s going on all the time, they might turn off their television sets.”

“A good musician needs an audience,” he continues. “It works for the venues too, because if they see 60 people instead of 10, then they feel a lot better about bringing music in.”

The ever-multitasking Clark also sees Rhythms of the River as a chance to call attention to more than his hometown. “The issue of our life is low carbon, how do we live in a sustainable way,” he says, and the shows will feature exhibits showing how citizens can act personally to that end.

Think of it as Live Earth at the local level.

“That’s the underpinning of my message,” he says. “It feels good to bring some awareness to the local community.”

Working Class Gully Boys Celebrate 13 Years

groundhog.jpgThe Gully Boys, a ragtag group of friends who found common ground in the music of the Grateful Dead, Phish, Little Feat and other jam bands, celebrate 13 years together next Friday. “Together,” however, doesn’t quite describe their many permutations.

Says leader and vocalist Bill Temple, “there’s been at least 20 guys that have come and gone, and come back and left, and come back again” to the Gully Boys, who typically hit the stage as a five-man combo. The “Groundhog Day Reunion Jam” February 2 at Royalton Academy came about after a friend of the band assembled eight years of live recordings together. The fan, JoJo Levasseur (who also does the band’s artwork), then pressed the compilation into a CD and gave it to band members last Christmas.

Listening to it, says Temple, “really got me thinking. For each song they put who was in the band at that point. This idea began percolating in my head that we should get everybody back together and just have this jam.”

The original Gully Boys lineup formed in the mid-90’s at Bentley’s Restaurant in Woodstock. “A bunch of guys were living on the Gully Road, which runs along the back of Suicide Six,” says Temple. To blow off steam from their various day jobs, “we just started jamming down there, they weren’t paying us much. We knew a few songs and we’d make it up as we went along.”

When Jerry Garcia died in August 1995, Temple organized a memorial at Quechee Gorge, which drew a surprising crowd of over 300 people. Afterwards, they headed over to Seven Barrels Brewery in West Lebanon, where Temple tended bar, and plugged in. “The manager said we could just bring the whole thing down there … that was really the first official gig as the Gully Boys.”

The Gully Boys motto is “if you can’t make it up while you’re playing, you shouldn’t be playing,” and an improvisational spirit still guides the band. “We’ve always been about the jam,” says Temple. “Just throw a basic musical structure out there and get your rocks off, take it as far as you can.”

“Sometimes, it’s a train wreck, but not THAT often,” he says. “But other times you get to that point that makes Deadheads Deadheads – where that bubble pops in your head, and you go, ‘wow, that’s so awesome!’”

They’ve released only one studio album. In 2005, Temple and drummer Tod Moses took charge and, with eight other musicians, made “Diluvian Dreams” in a home studio. They’d already tried to make a record “at least four times, and hadn’t finished because someone would quit or get fed up,” says Temple. When that happened, “they’d either say we couldn’t use their tracks, or because they weren’t in the band anymore, we didn’t think it was right to use them.”

“Diluvian Dreams” features nine original songs, all emblematic of the footloose Gully Boys sound, including the bluesy “Big Rocks,” the Dead-flavored “Cosmic Love” (a sped-up “Scarlet Begonias”) and a soulful ballad, “Beautiful.” A highlight is the humorous “Flatlander Song,” a playful dig at tourists – “you’d think they’d never seen two or three trees in the same place,” sings Temple.

Gully Boys bassist and archivist Dave Clark has also posted numerous live shows on his website, www.yellowhousemedia.com, which is an unofficial but pretty reliable band home page.

There should be between 15 or 20 people at next Friday’s show, says Temple, who hopes that kismet and organized chaos will guide them. The plan is to perform four sets. “I’m just gonna say at the start of the night, OK, who wants to play what tune,” he says. “The drummers will be the biggest challenge. There are so many, but we’ll have two drum kits. You know, the classic Dead/Allman Brothers setup.”

With any luck, the Gully Boys will reunite again in a year, but in the meantime the band’s shifting lineup will convene once a month at Seven Barrels, as well as places like Middle Earth and McGee’s. They’ll play, says Temple, “anywhere that will have us,” but they try to schedule only one gig a week. They don’t want to burn out on making music; it keeps them sane after toiling at a regular job.

“It’s something to look forward to,” he says. “When you’re pounding nails or making steaks, if you know on the weekend that you’re gonna be a rock star for a few hours, it gets you through the week.”

Upcoming Gully Boys shows:

Saturday, January 27 – Seven Barrels Brewery, West Lebanon
Friday, February 2 – Royalton Academy Building, Royalton

Middle Earth Music Hall Soundboard Recordings (2/06)

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