Local Rhythms – Remembering John

abbeyroadsmall.jpgLONDON – Last Saturday marked the 27th anniversary of John Lennon’s death, and as fate would have it, I happened to be in London.   

On December 8, 2000, I didn’t simply react to Lennon’s murder; it was my responsibility to announce the sad news to listeners tuned into Q-106, as the Claremont station I worked for was known back then.

Opening my microphone and uttering the words “John Lennon is dead” was the hardest thing I’d ever done up to that point in my short life.  To this day, it still seems unreal.   

I often wonder how life might be were the so-called “cynical Beatle” still among us.

I pondered this while crossing the street (made iconic by the album cover) to stand in front of Abbey Road studios.  What magic did we miss?  Would Lennon’s wit have illuminated the events of our day in the same way “Give Peace a Chance” – or for that matter, “Instant Karma” – still inspire us? 

I have to think so.  But I can only imagine what Lennon, who never shied away from controversy, might have said about, for example, the strange bedfellowship of George W. Bush, Tony Blair and the Iraq war.

Even in a world with John, the hoped-for Beatles reunion probably wouldn’t have happened.  A stoned-out Lennon and McCartney almost turned up on “Saturday Night Live” in the late 70’s, and that’s as close as it was ever going to get.   

John Lennon was, at the time of his death, the prototype of the anti-pop star.  He wanted nothing more than to raise his young son and make the occasional record.  Life on his terms – it’s a model that precious few celebrities follow today.

The advent of technology – the Internet, digital music, mobile communications – probably would captivate John’s playful nature.  I doubt he would have stood in the way of making Beatles songs available as MP3s – if he’d had any say in the matter. 

The Beatles were first a revelation, then a revolution and finally, a commodity.  Most of today’s pop music skips the first two steps and goes straight for the money.  That’s why so many new songs are heard first on TV shows or commercial jingles.

If John Lennon were still alive, he probably couldn’t have stopped this onslaught, but I would have loved to watch him try. 

What’s to love on the local live music scene this week?

Thursday: The Samples, Pickle Barrel – The return of ski season means the Killington nightclub scene is once again hot.  Tonight, it’s the jazz-rock fusion of this Vermont group, called by some “the best band you’ve never heard of.”  The jam-folk of Rustic Overtones is due two weeks hence, and there’s a heavy metal show next month.  Down the road, the Zen Tricksters (minus ex-Dead chanteuse Donna Jean Godchaux) play the Wobbly Barn.  Time the hit he slopes. 

Friday: Spectris, Imperial Lounge – Now a three piece band, this is not the Spectris you’ve known through the years. The addition of Josh Mosher (KAOS, Curst) on bass anchors a more aggressive, guitar-forward sound that takes its cues from power trios like Tool (and Rush, which means they haven’t completely forsaken their progressive rock roots).  Check out “Entrophy” on their MySpace page for a sample of this new, edgier sound.

Saturday: Méav, Plainfield Town Hall – This show was originally scheduled for the Lebanon Opera House.  The former “Celtic Woman” plays solo, now with the famous Maxfield Parrish curtain as her backdrop. Méav left the band earlier this year; these shows are among the first she’s done on her own.  When last in the region, the immensely popular group played the Verizon Wireless Center, so this is a great opportunity to experience her traditional Irish music in a more intimate (and quite beautiful) venue. 

Sunday: Christmas Revels, Hopkins Center – A holiday perennial closes its 4-day run tonight.  This year’s production, “Celebration of the Winter Solstice: Music, Dance & Stories of Scandinavia & the Northlands,” brings cultural traditions from Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland and Karelia.

Tuesday: Billy Rosen & Peter Concilio, Tip Top Café – White River Junction is quite the jazz destination lately, and it doesn’t get any better than Rosen’s sweet, nimble touch on the guitar. Joined by Concilio, it’s sure to be a night of standards played with understated elegance.  With an early 6 PM start, this is also a nice after work diversion 

Wednesday: Beauty and the Beast, Briggs Opera House – The production of the smash Broadway musical doesn’t benefit from Disney’s unlimited budget, but with the veteran Brooke Ciardelli directing, it is quite inspired.  The music – “Be Our Guest,” “Something There,” the title song – is indelible, and the story is, well, a “tale as old as time.” In the hands of Northern Stage, one of the area’s finest cultural resources, that’s a perfect recipe.


Local Rhythms – Life-Changing Music

meet1.jpgIn his excellent autobiography, “Radio Waves,” Jim Ladd (the guy Tom Petty sang about in “The Last DJ”) recalls asking John Lennon about the impact his music had on the social changes of the 1960s.

“Artists are a kind of mirror of society, they’re not some luxury,” he answered. “Critics say … you sang about peace but you never got it. I think, what would have happened if we hadn’t said that?”

I believe in the transformative power of music; in some ways, it’s my religion. When I say “God’s in the Pod” – the iPod – I’m only half-joking. A good song takes me places in a way nothing else can.

So it intrigued me when a recent email asked for five records that changed my life. Not the best, you see – the most important. Here’s the list I made:

1. Meet the Beatles – I was 7, and one of the millions swept up by Beatlemania. But this discovery marked a departure from the sing-along folk and mysterious jazz I heard at home. The Beatles represented my musical declaration of independence.

2. Sounds of Silence – This Simon & Garfunkel record was under the Christmas tree one year. I hadn’t asked for it, but as I listened, my rebel heart softened a bit for my parents. I’ve tried to carry on the spirit of musical sharing with my own kids.

3. Black Sabbath – Did heavy music even exist before this band’s first record? Maybe, but nothing had the impact of the deep bells that opened side one, the maniacal Ozzy Osborne’s trembling voice, and those throbbing guitars.

4. Talking Heads ’77 – I’d heard of the CBGB’s scene, but thought it was about attitude, not art. I wasn’t interested. Then my best friend gave me this record and I realized that without attitude, music couldn’t aspire to art.

5. This Side – It was Nickel Creek’s performance at Lebanon Opera House as much as their second proper album (they made some kiddie bluegrass back when) that helped me to realize the walls had truly fallen. There are no genres, only music.

Thanks to Christopher Bergmann (his band Spectris plays the all day “Field of Rock” show August 18 at Okemo) for sending this my way. As Chris observed, “there are so many others.”

What are yours?

Here’s what’s hot in upcoming local music:

Thursday: Singer & Jordan, Inky’s Place – Here’s something I didn’t know about. There’s a school in White River Junction, the Center for Cartoon Studies, offering a two-year degree in the art of the graphic novel. The Hotel Coolidge re-named their café in its honor; Innkeeper David Briggs calls it a “de facto student union.” It’s also home to the occasional musical performance, tonight by Phil Singer and Laurianne Jordan, who’ve graced a few different area bands.

Friday: Billy Rosen Quartet, Sophie & Zeke’s – A crowd-pleasing four piece jazz combo that’s at turns smooth, sultry and swinging. Rosen has a subtle touch on guitar; a saxophone player who neither stands in the shadows nor tries to blow the room away complements him. What’s most impressive about this lineup is the organic interplay between the musicians. It’s an inspired, yet disciplined, jam session from one of the best groups to play this downtown venue.

Saturday: Last Kid Picked, Anchorage – It’s a busy weekend for this Newport band, helping Electra celebrate six years in business on Friday, and getting the harbor party started on Saturday. LKP has been together since 1996, when they played together for the first time at West Lebanon’s Werewolves. The lineup has changed considerably over the years, but the band is still a local institution that knows how to rock.

Sunday: Jenny Brook Bluegrass Festival – The seventh annual event in Weston, Vermont closes with a morning gospel sing-along followed by mandolin wizard Buddy Merriam and his Back Roads band, and performances from the many faces of the Sawyers, the family that puts this festival together every year. It starts on Thursday, and features some of the best Americana around.

Tuesday: EdgeFest w/ Hem, Boston Symphony Hall – God bless Keith Lockhart. Under his helm, the somewhat stodgy Boston Pops has welcomed the likes of Aerosmith, Guster and Aimee Mann into their musical fold. The EdgeFest is now in its third year, a deliberate melding of the staid and the new. The 2007 edition features two nights of Cowboy Junkies, followed by this atmospheric chamber pop combo. The collaborative potential here is, to be sure, promising.

Wednesday: Morrissey, Pines Theatre – The former Smiths front man has moved on from the morose pop of “Pretty Girls Make Graves” and “Girlfriend in a Coma” – but he’s still miserable, only with more beefed-up arrangements. Somehow I can’t picture him playing outdoors in a Northampton park on a hot summer night, but we’ll see.

Re-Meet The Beatles

It was 40 years ago today, the Beatles taught the world to play.  With the June 3 anniversary of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” there are Fab Four projects in abundance, though none will have the seismic effect on the music world of their 1967 masterpiece.

“Will you still need me, will you still feed me when I’m 64?” asked Paul McCartney on that record.  Now he’s reached that ripe old age, and Sir Paul isn’t waiting around for an answer.  Instead, he’s pulling out all the stops to assert his relevance.  Ringo Starr, the only other living Beatle, has an art show, greatest hits package, and two live DVDs in the pipeline – in addition to a rumored new studio album.

John Lennon’s memory is being invoked anew by Amnesty International, and George Harrison’s work with the Traveling Wilburys has been re-mastered and given the box set treatment.

McCartney’s “Memory Almost Full” is an album’s worth of new material that moves from his Beatles tenure (“Ever Present Past,” “Vintage Clothes”) to his looming mortality (“The End of the End”) with breeziness reminiscent of “Band on the Run”-era Wings.

But more attention is being paid to the record’s marketing effort than its musical content.  Starbucks enjoyed success selling exclusive CDs from Ray Charles, Bob Dylan and Sheryl Crow in their national chain of coffee shops.  Last year, they wooed Paul away from longtime label EMI to their Hear Music imprint.

Beginning last Tuesday, every Starbucks latte came with a venti helping of McCartney.  “Memory Almost Full” played 24/7, and the baristas were restless.  Word began to leak out about sabotaged store CD players and disgruntled customers unhappy at being force-fed Macca with their milk foam.

More embarrassing was a “report from the trenches” published on the Lefsetz.com blog.  An anonymous Starbucks manager noted that McCartney, a vegetarian and avid PETA supporter, would likely object to a sign posted in many east coast stores, urging customers to grab the album “while enjoying a new Classic Sausage Egg and Cheese Breakfast Sandwich.”

Of course, when a video of McCartney begging fans to buy the record showed up on Amazon.com, it seemed he’d countenance most anything in the name of commerce.

All the brouhaha is a shame, really, because “Memory Almost Full” is actually quite good, when stacked against his recent solo work.

It’s no “Venus and Mars,” though.

With “Instant Karma: The Campaign To Save Darfur,” at least John Lennon’s dignity is still intact.  Amnesty International gathered a blue chip collection of classic and hip new artists to cover Lennon solo material made available with the help of widow Yoko Ono.  Proceeds from the CD go to support the human rights organization’s continuing work, and specifically draw attention to the dire situation in the Sudan.

Highlights include Aerosmith’s “Give Peace a Chance,” re-worked with help from the Sierra Leone Refugee All-Stars, country stars Big & Rich doing a surprising cover of “Nobody Told Me” and Regina Spektor’s eerie take on “Real Love.”

Green Day’s rocked-up version of “Working Class Hero,” and the Black Eyed Peas’ transformation of “Power to the People” into a hip-hop anthem are also nice touches

Overall, however, the project loses its way.  Two songs, “Imagine” and “Gimme Some Truth” are performed twice on the two-disc set.  Surely the Lennon catalog is deeper than that.  “How Do You Sleep?” and “Well Well Well” are two that might have made the cut.

The record’s producers may have also forgotten that it’s already been done before – in 1995, when the Humane Society raised money with a CD’s worth of Lennon covers.  Amusingly enough, the Flaming Lips contributed a song to both compilations.

What is probably the most potent supergroup in rock history began when George Harrison called on friends Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison to help him with a B-side, “Handle With Care.”  Bob Dylan joined because he had a studio they wanted to use, and Tom Petty came on board after Harrison and Lynne stopped by his house to retrieve George’s guitar.

“If we’d tried to plan it, it never would have happened,” Harrison says in “The True History of the Traveling Wilburys,” a film included in the 3-disc “Traveling Wilburys Collection” released Tuesday.  The set includes both Wilburys albums (the second recorded after Orbison’s death), along with four bonus tracks, and a DVD with the documentary and five music videos.

“It was magical,” said Harrison – an understatement when one views just how ego-free this band seemed to be.  They made up songs in the kitchen, and crowded around a single studio microphone to record “Dirty World” and other tracks.

“There was just a lot of music in the air, a lot of fun going around, a lot of parties,” says Tom Petty.  “We’d play ukuleles until dawn, with our children dropping like flies around us.”

“The Traveling Wilburys Collection” is the sound of close friends enjoying each other’s company, and one of pop music’s great moments.

That leaves Ringo, who’s made a career repackaging his past.  The most earth-shattering thing Starr’s done this year is claim in a recent interview, “Sgt. Pepper’s wasn’t our best album.”  Beyond that, it’s been more greatest hits collections and tours with the “All-Starr Orchestra,” a B-list band that’s been treading the summer sheds for over a decade.

Perhaps “Liverpool 8,” done with the help of ex-Eurythmic Dave Stewart, will shake things up a bit.  The record is rumored to have a more modern sound.

But with the power of their past obviously still intact, why would any Beatle want to try for modern?