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 – Best Live Shows of 2008

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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.

Jenee Halstead – Old Time, Internet Time

In a cavernous living room lit with the glow of 24 candles, Jenee Halstead and her band start to play. There are no wires, spotlights or microphones, simply a half circle of four musicians standing in a corner. The scene brings to mind a Depression-era campfire, not a suburban house concert a few miles south of Boston, with well-to-do guests nibbling catered barbeque and sipping wine from long-stemmed glasses.

The near-absence of light makes such a mental leap more possible. The group’s strumming forms are mere shadows; the hazy darkness punctuated by fiddle salvos, deft guitar and mandolin runs, and Halstead’s quivering, sweetly crooning voice.

Though the music is deep and distant, the story behind its creation is as modern as an iPhone. Using MySpace, Facebook and other technology tools of the independent music trade, talents were verified, reputations vetted and friendships cemented days, even weeks before anyone met face to face to play songs that would make Woody Guthrie smile in approval.

Or even George Clinton, as Halstead’s rapidly assembled network of bluegrass purists, an old school producer, his song doctor wife and some electronica-affected friends combined to make “The River Grace,” a pitch perfect blend of traditional picking and modern tweaking.

Old time, meet Internet time.

“It happened really quickly,” Halstead says. Soon after arriving in Boston in mid-2006, she created a MySpace page. “I had some recordings I’d done right before I left Seattle. Within literally 2 or 3 days, I got a comment from Matt Smith at Club Passim.”

Smith, who manages the venerable Cambridge folk institution, which just celebrated its 50th anniversary, told Halstead he liked her stuff and to keep in touch. He also mentioned her to some of his friends.

Meanwhile, Jenee placed an ad on the Craig’s List web site, with an eye towards putting together a band in the spirit of Crooked Still. “I always wanted to do bluegrass, but didn’t think I could because I wasn’t schooled in it.” Of her reservations about seeking out seasoned pickers, she says, “it was like walking on sacred ground.”

Guitarist Andy Cambria answered the ad. “I heard her stuff and knew right away that she could be in front of a band,” he says.

Five weeks and a flurry of e-mails later, they were playing together.

Halstead divided her time between building a name in Boston and recording an album in Pennsylvania. The solo acoustic project collapsed in a cloud of romantic confusion with the record’s producer. “Trying to decide if we were going to be a couple … got too difficult,” she says. “It was disheartening to lose all that work, all those hours.”

“Out of the blue, I got an email from Evan Brubaker, saying Matt Smith told me to check you out.” Though she had long lived in the same city as the producer, Smith’s e-mail was their first introduction.

“I’m totally horrified that you lived in Seattle for nine years and I never knew about you,” wrote Brubaker to Halstead.

“I was instantly drawn to her mixture of old time and poetry,” says Brubaker. “I let her know that if she ever needed to do some recording, I would be honored.”

Halstead’s songs are at once beautiful and tinged with night-sweat inducing dread – Appalachian gothic tales of fear, suffering and salvation. Things aren’t simple, meanings are never quite clear.

Though she describes herself as “non-religious but spiritual,” themes of heaven and hell abound. Death is a constant companion.

If Flannery O’Connor were raised in Spokane, Washington, listening to her father’s Led Zeppelin albums, she might have sounded like this.

On the title track from “The River Grace,” a woman struggles to live in a time of war. When, at the song’s bridge, she implores, “embrace the undertow/take me home,” it’s not certain whether she’s praying to be carried across the waves or beneath them.

A crime spree at the heart of “Darkest Day” echoes Robert Earl Keen’s “Road Goes on Forever,” but the tragedy at song’s end is more palpable, the heroine’s devastation permanent.

Then there’s “Dusty Rose,” a song that seems lifted from Loretta Lynn’s Jack White sessions. It’s either a murder ballad or the final sad chapter of “Stand By Your Man” – the singer won’t tell.

Halstead – her first name rhymes with Renee – says her songs are “stories of people’s lives that came to me subconsciously.” Whether the narrator of “Dusty Rose” is a killer or a grieving widow is something she emphatically doesn’t know.

“These are not my stories,” she says. “There’s some woman out there who owns that song. I don’t know who she is.”

“It’s a healing thing to let them go,” she continues, and let others decide their meaning.

That’s a sentiment she shares with another songwriter, Patty Griffin, who once likened her songs to children set free in the world.

The first Velvet Underground record didn’t sell a lot of copies, but (so the legend goes) everyone who bought one started a band. The same is probably true of Patty Griffin. Not a lot of people heard “Living With Ghosts” when it came out, but many young women – including Jenee Halstead – did, and were inspired to buy a guitar and a notepad.

“I don’t think I started writing songs because of her,” Jenee says, “but I think she gave me the impetus to really get on my guitar and try to do some emotional mining.

Evan Brubaker is also a fan – he even named his recording studio “Forgiveness,” after a Patty Griffin song. “’Living With Ghosts’ is the chick singer bible,” he said recently. “The songs are simple but brilliant and universal. I don’t know how many copies of that record I have given away.”

Before coming to Seattle to work on the record, Halstead and Brubaker had long phone conversations about the “old timey” record she hoped to make. “I really trusted Evan,” she says. “Who he was at his core and his vision of music and why he’s doing it lined up with everything.”

A couple of things, however, gave her pause.

Songwriting, says Halstead, “is like entering a pitch black room, and the light may never go on. And to be honest, I don’t know if I want it to.”

Opening up such a dark and solitary process to another writer was a challenge. Megan Peters is both an accomplished lyricist and Evan Brubaker’s wife. She is also, says the producer, “one of the best co-writers in existence.”

But for Halstead, letting go was a challenge. “It was very hard at first to work with Megan,” she says. “She is a tour de force, so I was a little bit intimidated by her.”

“She is truly a master of the craft,” she continues. Peters has an ability to “look at it from all angles or take a song in a direction you would never have thought about in a million years.”

Brubaker’s biggest idea of all was perhaps the one that took the most getting used to.

Hearing that keyboard player Steve Moore would be available for a few days, Brubaker says, “I got a flash of how it would all come together.”

“Steve is brilliant. He has a collection of 80’s Casio keyboards, a bunch of guitar pedals, a little amp and a Fender Rhodes. He plays free jazz, hardcore, singer-songwriter…the guy is game for anything.”

“I couldn’t imagine how keyboards fit into the old-time sound,” countered Halstead.

“We started messing around with live drum samples for fun,” she says. “I said, ‘slam a crazy (Roots drummer) Questlove beat behind “Before I Go”’ – just as a joke.”

“I loved it. Over the course of the next 24 hours it opened my mind.”

Co-mingling beat samples with mandolins, dreamy organ excursions and Dobro flourishes is, to say the least, unconventional. But it infuses “The River Grace” with adventure and irreverence, transforming it from a merely good folk album to a pivotal record that comes along once in a generation to invent a new musical language.

Photo Credits: (1 & 2) Gretjen Helene Hargesheimer 2007

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Download “Deep Dark Sea” from Jenee Halstead’s “The River Grace