Local Rhythms – Lose the digital cheesecloth

Picture 2I’m not one of those annoying old people constantly crowing about how wonderful things used to be.  My generation must answer for 8-track tapes, rotary dial phones and gas shortages – not to mention every piece of clothing John Travolta wore in “Saturday Night Fever.”

Am I nostalgic for that? Hardly. I’m a modern guy who can’t get enough of email on my Palm Pre, texting, voice-activated Bluetooth calls or satellite radio.

But speaking of radio, I’ve figured out why no amount of effort can make me like today’s flavor of the week pop music.

L’il Wayne begets T-Pain, Sean Kingston yields to Lady Gaga, and I always wonder – where’s the talent?

Turns out much of it’s done with the musical version of the Wonderbra – a computer program that turns even the worst voice into a top ten song.

Auto-Tune came into vogue on Cher’s execrable 1998 hit, “Believe.”  Now this pitch correction tool, intended to subtly fix final mixes, is built into every recording studio.

It’s why Kanye West has a career, Lindsay Lohan did a concert tour, and Atlanta’s “real housewife” Kim Zolciak could make the aptly-titled “Tardy for the Party.”

Because hey, if you’re a reality television star with a dream, it shouldn’t matter that your Marlboro-charred throat can’t carry a tune.

Fortunately, there’s some backlash.

Jay-Z released a single, “D.O.A. (Death of Auto-tune),” in late June. There’s a video for the song depicting T-Pain’s bling getting blown to pieces while the hip-hop mogul raps, “pull your skirt back down, grow a set men.”

I hope he meant a set of vocal cords.

Wyclef Jean’s “Mr. Autotune” is the best of the put-down songs. “If you sing off key, for a small fee, I can make you a celebrity,” says Wyclef.

“I wanna make money,” replies duet partner Nick Cannon.

“Then all you gotta do is pay me,” is the retort.  “You’ll be a superstar.”

You always knew that pop-up pop tarts like Lady Gaga couldn’t sing.  You suspected that the prefab ‘tweens churned out of the Mouse Factory were doing it with mirrors, musical rhinoplasty and studio liposuction.

Well, now you have proof.

When Auto-tune, desire and money are all that’s required to succeed in today’s music world, it makes me want to head to the bar.

There, the bands don’t use digital cheesecloth to get across.

Here are a few choices:

Thursday: Sensible Soul Trio, Elixir – Now under new management, the White River Junction small plate restaurant continues the tradition of live music, five nights a week.  Tonight, a stripped down version of the popular dance band Sensible Shoes perform, led by Woodstock attendee Barbara Blaisdell and her husband Tim Utt.  The band’s new album should arrive any day now.

Friday: Larry Dougher Band, Sophie & Zeke’s (Canceled) – The young bluesman visits the downtown Claremont eatery with a new album, the just-released “Let Me Stay.” He also has a crackerjack band – drummer Bobby Gagnier and bass player Michael Fralish.  Unlike many who take inspiration from players like Buddy Guy, Albert King and Muddy Waters, Dougher wrote all but one of the songs on his new album.

Saturday: Oh Darling, Motel-in-the-Meadow – This Chester show benefits TARPS – the Animal Rescue Protection Society, and features an L.A. band that fans of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs will love doing an all-acoustic show.  Also along for the fun are 84 Sheepdog and Dan Whitley. Suggested donation is $10 with all proceeds going to support building a new ‘no-kill’ shelter.   Oh, and bring a lawn chair.

Sunday: Pete Merrigan, Digby’s – One of my favorite ways to spend a late weekend afternoon is nestled just beyond the Sunapee roundabout.   A cold beverage, a basket of onion rings, nachos or chicken fingers, and Pete – with his uncanny knack of recognizing 90 percent of everyone on the outdoor deck – is the just the right combination.  Add sunshine, and it’s perfection.

Tuesday: Jesse Peters, PK’s Pub – Last May, this singer/songwriter die a “Hub and Spoke” tour, traveling to gigs in Vermont, New Hampshire and New York on a bicycle.  I can guarantee he doesn’t have an Auto-Tune equipped laptop.  For one thing, there’s nowhere to put it. Tonight, Jesse does a close to home gig where other people get to be brave.  It’s open mike night, which in downtown Bellows Falls can often produce some magical moments if the right player stops by.

Wednesday: Tad Davis Open Mike, Skunk Hollow – Tad Davis holds forth for amateur night in Hartland Four Corners.  Maybe that’s unfair – anything can happen, from excellent to awful.  The one constant is the 20 or so minutes allotted to each performer to work through material.  Should you take your act public or stick to lip-synching for YouTube?  Here’s the place to find out.

Local Rhythms – Try Some Promotion

I’d like you to try an experiment.  Locate a teenager.  Son, daughter, nephew or the kid who shovels your driveway, it doesn’t really matter – as long as they’re a music fan.  Look for kids who tend to wear lots of t-shirts with names you don’t recognize.

Or an iPod – that’s another good clue.

Ask them to name their favorite bands.  Chances are, they’ll recite a pretty long list.  

OK, here’s the fun part – try to locate some of them.

Time was, every town had a record store.  These days, there’s Music Matters and Newbury Comics in West Lebanon; for most of us, though, big box stores like Wal-Mart or Best Buy are it.   

After fighting traffic and steadily growing weary of clerk’s blank stares, you’ll buy a gift card.  Worth one, perhaps two items on a young fan’s holiday list.

On the other hand, purchasing credit at an online music store – iTunes is the most popular, but by no means the only one – means more variety and bang for the buck. 

The record business is floundering because there aren’t many good albums.  But there are a lot of good songs, and for that, a la carte is where it’s at.

Hold the power ballad – I’ll take a double order of rock steady. 

Of course, this doesn’t exactly sit well with the folks making – er, selling the music.  Jermaine Dupree, an industry executive, excoriated iTunes recently.  The latest release from Dupree’s client Jay-Z is available online, but only as a “complete work.”

He compared selling music by the track to hawking torn-off pieces of an Andy Warhol painting.   

It’s odd that Dupree cites Warhol, as the ubiquity of his work – prints, magazine covers, t-shirts, postcards – is a big reason why it’s so familiar today.

“Tearing a corner” from a musical masterpiece (though I have a hard time thinking of “American Gangster” in such terms) doesn’t alter the work.  It’s not like there’s only one painting.  You can buy the whole thing if you wish, and I’ll just grab a song – which may whet my appetite for more. 

It’s called consumer choice.  For some, though, the concept of free markets is hard to grasp.

Dupree also complained that “books aren’t sold by the chapter.”  He’s right.  The Internet, with no printing or mailing costs, makes it infinitely easier to give it away.  Check out the New York Times Book Review, and you’ll find a link with most write-ups. 

That, Mr. Dupree, is called promotion.   You should try it sometime.

What’s happening in the coming days? 

Wednesday: Handel’s Messiah, Hopkins Center – With the holiday shopping season underway, it’s a good time to remember what a good many people are celebrating.  First performed in Dublin in 1742, this edition of Handel’s Messiah is particularly special, with celebrated German conductor Helmuth Rilling leading the Handel Society.  If there’s a chorale sample more ubiquitous than “Hallelujah,” I haven’t heard it. 

Thursday: Billy Rosen Quartet, Sophie & Zeke’s – Since introducing live music 18 months ago, this downtown Claremont restaurant has found its sweet spot is jazz.  Of all the combos that pass through, Rosen’s is probably my favorite.  These four musicians possess a breathtaking ability to communicate, trading solos and finding infectious grooves with ease.  Good jazz remakes the familiar into something surprising and new, and they have that in spades. 

Friday: Spare Change Bluegrass Band, Salt Hill 2 –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.

Saturday: Mighty Sam McClain, Blow-Me-Down Grange Hall – This should be a lot of fun.  McClain, who lives in Southern New Hampshire, sings soul with abandon, backed by a seven piece band that will rattle the walls of this venerable Plainfield building.  His music earned him Grammy nominations and appearances on TV shows like “Ally McBeal.”   

Sunday: Area Choir, Newport Congregational Church – This event (with one performance Saturday and two Sunday), brings together the best voices from churches throughout the region for a Christmas sing.  It’s always a seasonal highlight, featuring not-so-often-heard hymns along with holiday favorites, when those in the pews are invited to join in.  There’s no admission charge, but a donation is welcome. 

Tuesday: Alejandro Escovedo, Boccelli’s – One of the more luminous acts to play downtown Bellows Falls, Escovedo has a widely varied background.  He was an early progenitor of punk in the late ‘70’s with the Nuns, then moved on to country rock with Rank and File.  Always a step ahead of the rest, his latest release, “Boxing Mirror,” reflects a spiritual awakening – but he’ll still play “I Wanna Be Your Dog” in concert.