Local Rhythms – Holiday Must Miss List

sonysucks.jpgThis is the time of year when the inevitable gift lists begin appearing. Pundits everywhere line up to pick the hottest toys, coolest gadgets and must-have baubles. I’m going to perform a different kind of public service, by pointing out presents to avoid.

It sounds cynical, I know. Ultimately, you’ll thank me.

In no particular order, here’s my Christmas Miss List:

  1. Fan Clubs – Everyone wants to do something special for their Hannah Montana-crazed moppet. But you’re better off taking the $30 annual fee that promises tickets to the concert and giving it to a scalper. Because that may be the only way of getting into the show. So says recent press reports, which tell of fans suing their favorite stars faster than you can say mileycyrussucks.com.
  1. Sony Products – I’m like a classic abused spouse when it comes to this company – easily seduced by flashy features, then slapped down by mediocrity. If only I’d waited for the Amazon Kindle instead of believing the E-Reader’s sexy lies, I’d be happy. Instead, there’s another busted unit in my closet full of dead Walkmans, Discmans and Watchmans. I really should call the shelter.

  1. Satellite Radios – The XM/Sirius merger could happen any day. In the meantime, a bet on either company is like a choice between VHS and Beta (or Blu-Ray and HD-DVD). Don’t get me wrong, I believe satellite’s ubiquity of choice may do nothing short of saving music. But until the smoke clears, there’s a 50/50 chance your gift could become a white elephant.
  1. PCs – Here’s a funny old computer joke: the code name for Windows 95 was Mac ’84. Apple invents, Microsoft reinvents – badly. Nowadays, virtually every new PC is sold with Windows Vista; a 500-pound software gorilla that eats resources like King Kong chomps bananas. Hence, the best new joke is the one about the perfect upgrade – a downgrade to Windows XP.
  1. The iPhone – 2007 will go down in history as the year of Apple’s biggest blunder since the 20-pound “portable” computer. The iPhone made many iRate when its high price was cut by $200 a mere two months after introduction. Even after the rage died down (an early adopter rebate helped), the cool looking device still had problems. No 4G, no expansion options – and partnering with AT&T was like custom-mounting an iPod in a Pinto.

OK, on to cheerier topics – like can’t-miss music:

Thursday: Belly Dancing, Middle Earth Music Hall – “Charlie Wilson’s War” is a book I came to a little late, but what a fantastic read it turned out to be. I can’t wait for the movie, with Tom Hanks playing the wild and crazy Texas congressman who may have single-handedly destroyed the Communist menace. What does that have to do with belly dancing? One of the book’s best moments revolved around a “friend” of Wilson’s who showed her hip-swiveling moves to the leader of Pakistan, a very fundamentalist country.

Friday: Jesse Peters Open Mic, McKinley’s Pub – The Morningstar Café’s former ringmaster is still in downtown Springfield, first Fridays in the basement of Penelope’s Restaurant. His trio plays a no cover show Saturday across the river at Charlestown’s Heritage. Peters recently posted an original song, “United States of the Blues,” on his website as a free download. The man has a political bent, as evidence by this down and dirty rant, which has a Roger Waters feel to it. Nice stuff, and worth checking out.

Saturday: Greg Brown, Bellows Falls Opera House – He began his career hosting hootenannies in mid-1960s Greenwich Village, and started Red House Records, the home of some pretty amazing albums. When Greg Brown straps on a weathered guitar and begins singing in his low moaning voice, you sense the essence of folk music. As if Brown weren’t enough, another musical family represents at Friday’s show: Sarah Lee Guthrie, daughter of Arlo and granddaughter of Woody, playing with husband Johnny Irion.

Sunday: Tympanon, Parker House – This is perfect “Sunday in Quechee” music. Samantha Moffatt is a wonderful local musician (hammered dulcimer, percussion, chromatic button accordion and voice), who often plays solo at Elixir, as well as shows with her Celtic-flavored folk-baroque group Bauchon. Tonight she joins two talented musicians from Montreal: multi-instrumentalist Jean-Pierre LeDuc (guitar, fiddle) and his wife, Mireille Girard, a singer and accordion player.

Wednesday: Hurricane Alley, Andre’s – Welcome to a new music venue name in the Local Rhythms mix (though the Sunapee restaurant’s food is pretty well-known). Hurricane Alley’s a versatile band – lead guitarist/singe Reid Traviskis calls it “ABBA to ZZ Top.” Usually a five-piece, they play Andre’s every Wednesday as a trio. I planned on mentioning their appearance at Newport’s Moose Club, but it turns out the Friday night gig is a members-only show (newportmoose.com lists all of their public events).

Bellows Falls Bounces Back

boccellis.jpgFor Charlie Hunter, 2007 was supposed to be about painting and trains. The Bellows Falls impresario handed major responsibilities for the four-day Roots on the River festival to a new manager. He made plans to run his downtown art gallery, and his concert production business was going to be limited to organizing a few music and rails excursions. Other than that, he was going to take it easy.

“Everything is cyclical, and we had a really great run for a while,” says Hunter.

Hunter and his company, Flying Under Radar, played a key role in Bellows Falls’ recent renaissance. Beginning six years ago with shows at Oona’s Restaurant, and by 2004 in the more capacious Hotel Windham lobby, the sleepy village was transformed into a Mecca for music fans. The downtown filled with galleries, funky stores and other diversions.

With the one-two punch of the Windham’s July 2006 closing and a fire two months later that destroyed Oona’s, things looked bleak – but not over. PK’s Tavern continued its weekly open mike night, and Julie Waters’ “Second Sunday Song Circle” at the Exner Block is still going strong. But for a town used to big names like Chris Smither, Amy Rigby and Tanya Donnelly (who recorded a live album at the Windham in 2004), it wasn’t quite the same.

So a one-two counterpunch – the aforementioned Hunter and restaurateur Sharon Boccelli, who opened “Boccelli’s on the Canal” café and deli last spring – responded. Boccelli also runs an auction house in the space adjoining her restaurant, and she approached Hunter about using it for shows.

“I didn’t want to see all the momentum that we’d built up [with live music] disappear,” says Hunter. “So I came out of retirement.”

This Friday, a joint appearance by Jesse Peters and Josh Maiocco, dubbed the “Saxtons River Smackdown,” kicks off the “Bellows Falls: Where Live Music Lives” series. Peters, a singer and guitar player, headlined one of the Windham’s final shows, and was a sort of one-man house band at Springfield’s Morningstar Café before it closed. Maiocco took over the helm at PK’s after serving as lead guitarist for the much-missed Ingrid’s Ruse.

Other Boccelli’s shows in the works include a (tentative) February 1 appearance by roots rocker Dave Alvin and his band, the Guilty Men. Also “close to 100 percent confirmed,” says Hunter, are upcoming sets from the Hunger Mountain Boys, Richard Shindell, Tom Russell, James Keelaughan, Australian guitarist Jeff Lang, and the 2nd Annual Chris Whitley Memorial show on March 3, which will feature the late singer/songwriter’s brother Dan Whitley.

Hunter has committed five months to the effort and helped secure seed money from the Bellows Falls Downtown Development Alliance. “They wanted to see live music keep going,” he says.

Hunter adds that he’s grooming someone to take over promotion responsibilities when he steps aside. “There’s a guy in town who is very eager to learn about how one presents stuff, and he’s sort of serving as my intern. My hope is that after May, he can step up to the plate. “

“But I’ve got my old team in place,” says Hunter.

The group running things, including stage manager Patrick LeBlanc, will be familiar to most Windham fans. “We’ve got such a rich, deep talent pool, we’re really lucky,” says Hunter. Local record producer (and former Ingrid’s Ruse drummer) Seamus Martin will handle the sound, assisted by Maiocco on the nights he’s not playing.

The pairing of Boccelli’s and a re-formed Flying Under Radar makes complete sense, Hunter explained in a recent press release. “It’s a natural. Sharon serves great food, has a beer and wine license, is really into supporting local events … how could we not do some shows there?”

“What’s great about the space is that its capacity is 100; the Windham was 49,” Hunter added Wednesday. “There’s no way we could have done Dave Alvin at the Windham, the ticket would have to be 60 bucks.”

You can’t keep a good town down, and this Friday Bellows Falls resumes its role as an area cultural magnet. About that, the village’s strongest proponent is more than effusive.

“We’re gonna kick serious butt,” says Hunter.