Fred X – Great music, and cake for everyone

Picture 5As show time approached, music fans milled in front of the Bellows Falls Opera House, munching on barbeque and comparing notes from past festivals.  Downstairs in the reception area, festival organizer Ray Massucco unveiled an enormous “Fred X” cake, and later when he introduced local singer/songwriter Josh Maiocco, he offered everyone in the house a piece.

It’s Roots on the River, a musical Brigadoon that materializes every June in the mist of Bellows Falls and Rockingham.  For four wonderful days, any music lover can be part of community – there’s enough cake for everyone

Stave, Gary, Jackie and Amy, who traveled from Great Britain for the festival, commiserated with their friend Randy, who’d made the trek from northern California.   Soon, their friend John joined them.

“I came to my first Roots in 2007,” said John, who’d come from Manchester, England.  “Now, I have a girlfriend in Saxton’s River.”

Picture 3Josh Maiocco worked though a short set of autobiographical songs and a few covers, including a tasty medley of Johnny Cash’s “Big River” and “This Little Light of Mine.”

“No way I’m playing here without doing a Chris Whitley song,” Josh said, as he ended with “Dirt Floor,” a poignant reminder of Whitley’s last ever appearance, at the 2005 festival.

A laid-back Chris Smither won the house over with his good humor and great songwriting.  There’s probably no musician as comfortable in his own skin as the New Orleans-raised Smither, a writer/essayist who spent nearly as much time telling stories as singing songs during his set.

He previewed songs from the upcoming “Time Stands Still,” a studio album due for September release.  Among the highlights was a song he wrote for his four-year old daughter  (he quipped that she’d written two thirds of it, but he didn’t want to tell her because “then she’ll want money”), a conversation between father and daughter which contained this knowing refrain: “The wisest answer’s one you’ve learned a long time ago: ‘I don’t know’”

Picture 4Smither introduced another new song, “Surprise, Surprise,” as “topical – which is just as hard to write as a regular song, but only lasts for six months or so.  With such a short shelf life, you have to play it a lot.”

After two relatively sedate, sit-down solo sets from Maiocco and Smither, Sonny Landreth’s brand of Southern blues-rock was a bit jarring, and a few fans made an early exit.   Fans of the slide guitarist, however, were  electrified by his high-energy pyrotechnics.

It was  a great kickoff to the festival, which continues tomorrow with a free Ninja Monkey/Spike Dogtooth show at the Farmer’s Market, and the first of Fred Eaglesmith’s  shows in the tent behind the Everyday Inn.  Ray Massucco commissioned another cake specially for the show, in the shape of co-star Junior Brown’s “guit-steel” guitar.

It’s Brown’s birthday, and Ray’s a hospitable guy. There will probably be plenty to share.

Tickets remain for Friday night’s show, and the all-day Saturday ten extravaganza, featuring Eaglesmith’s band, the Bottle Rockets, Hayes Carll, Roger Marin, the Sweetback Sisters, Caroline Herring, Red Molly and Jenee Halstead.

There are also seats available for the Meetinghouse show on Sunday, featuring Eaglesmith and Jeffrey Foucault.

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.