Local Rhythms – Don’t Be Such A Spud

activitytv.jpgI may never leave the house again.

Late last week, Comcast completed a promised upgrade to their On Demand television system. Customers with digital set-top boxes now have twice as many reasons to stay on the couch. Movie selection has doubled – I counted over 190 free films, though some, like “Sahara” and “You Can’t Take It With You,” are so old they’re practically in the public domain.

The IFC offering is more cutting-edge, with brand-new indie films that open on TV and theaters on the same day. But these movies will cost you $5.95 each, though like all pay-per-view content, they can be watched for up to 24 hours.

It’s not all good. The on demand music is overstuffed with Beyonce, 50 Cent and Ne-Yo, and doesn’t excite me much. It may be hip-hop nation, but I live in a classic rock county. Some other new stuff is just silly, like On-Demand Dating, which has 30-second video ads from lonely men and women. Try E-Harmony, kids.

Move beyond that, however, and there’s a bevy of programming that may get you out of your chair. Activity TV, found on the Kids menu, offers lessons in juggling, puppet making, cooking and origami. This programming is also available on the activitytv.tv web site.

On Sports, there’s an exercise channel with lots of 10-minute workouts, as well as the youthful SportSkool, which features how-to demonstrations in snowboarding and skiing (there’s a nifty little Bode Miller profile), along with baseball, soccer and skateboarding lessons from pros like Mia Hamm and Dontrelle Willis.

On the Music menu, aspiring axe players can take guitar lessons. Star with the basics, move on to Barre chords (I didn’t know it was spelled that way either), and then apply your newfound knowledge to classics like “Pride and Joy” and “Sweet Home Alabama.”

If you’d rather sing than play, the music channel also has Karaoke TV. The song selection, with a bit of country, rock and pop, is a more diverse than the music videos. Don McLean’s “American Pie” was a regular family experience, with my wife and daughter joining in on the chorus, and laughing heartily at me as I tried to follow the bouncing lyric ball. There’s everything from “More Than A Feeling” to “Baby’s Got Back.”

It’s a great way to watch television without being a couch potato. If you’d rather go out on the town, however, here are some choices:

Thursday: Tim Harrison, Middle Earth – This Canadian folksinger reminds me a lot of fellow countryman Gordon Lightfoot. They both cover much of the same territory in their songs: the great and unforgiving wilderness, small quiet country towns, and geese – lots of geese. Harrison has won the attention of some of music’s more discerning ears, among them Daniel Lanois, who’s worked with Dylan and U2 (and produced Harrison’s last album).

Friday: Last Kid Picked, Electra This Newport band recently celebrated 10 years together; tonight, they head to West Lebanon. Give the litigious climate in the music business lately, I wonder if they’ll be looking over their shoulders when they play “It’s A Long Way To the Top?” AC/DC, after all, was one of the plaintiffs in that recently Vail nightclub suit.

Saturday: Hexerei & Transcent, Imperial Lounge – Music lives on Washington Street, despite the flight of Bistro Nouveau to greener pastures. Hexerei is very close to releasing their third album; Transcent’s combination of passion and technical proficiency so impressed me recently, I managed to garble their lead singer’s name in my review. For the record, it’s Mike Boucher.

Sunday: Spookie Daly Pride, Pickle Barrel – A raucous four-piece band from Boston that combines elements of hip-hop with loose, fun rock and roll. They remind me of Oingo Boingo before the movie soundtracks, or a caffeinated Squirrel Nut Zippers. For a clue of how ubiquitous they are, they’ve opened for everyone from Bela Fleck to Busta Rhymes.

Monday: Bob Weir & Ratdog, Capitol Center – The Grateful Dead side project that evolved into a full-time gig for Weir, though long-time bassist Rob Wasserman is gone (the two still play as a duo every now and then). With classic Dead songs like “Throwing Stones” and “Truckin’” combined with solo gems – “Cassidy,” “Mexicali Blues” and “Playing in the Band,” to name but a few – this should be a fine show.

Tuesday: Longford Row, Salt hill Pub – The members of this Burlington-based Irish trio, led by Gerry Feenan of Trinity, bartered tickets to the Saw Doctors’ Lebanon Opera House show in exchange for their services tonight. With any lucky, they’ll be able to serenade the objects of their adoration later. The band stopped by for a pint or two the last time they were in town. This set marks the resumption of the much-loved weekly Irish Sessions, though the next one will begin earlier.

Local Rhythms – No DRM

nodrm.jpgSteve Jobs is like that old ad for BASF – he doesn’t make the computers, digital music players or cell phones, he just makes them better. How? By thinking like the people who will ultimately use the MacBooks, iPods and iPhones that his company, Apple, unleashes on the world.

On Sunday night, the world will watch the annual Grammy awards unfold. Amidst a sea of self-congratulation, the stubbornly out-of-touch music business will again refuse to face some obvious truths. First, lawsuits won’t make people buy music, and second, encryption schemes won’t stop them from stealing it.

Which brings me back to Steve Jobs. In an open letter published on Apple’s website last Tuesday, he called for an end to digital rights management (DRM) schemes – the many ways record companies lock up their online music. His declaration carries some weight, because iTunes is the world’s largest legal download service, and the iPod is far and away most popular music player.

Jobs made a call to simple, common sense. In a world, he wrote, where last year 2 billion songs were sold online, “while over 20 billion … were sold completely DRM-free and unprotected on CDs by the music companies themselves,” how can anyone stop piracy?

On the other hand, if the industry took all the money wasted on making CDs that aren’t bought, the warehouses where they’re stored, and the fleets of trucks that deliver them, they could change the world and save their business.

When faced with the choice of a drive to the mall or a click of a mouse, what will most people do? But music purchased through most download services is fraught with problems that often render it unplayable. Tech-savvy fans turn to free (and currently illegal) download options for convenience as much as price.

If only the industry could agree upon a way to monetize this practice. They view Napster, which ushered in MP3 file trading in 1999, as the beginning of their end. Left out is the fact that CD sales rose, not fell, in Napster’s wake.

In making millions of songs easily available to casual listeners, Napster sparked an explosion of interest in previously ignored music. The industry responded by litigating them out of existence. Eight years later, they still haven’t learned that more fans means more business. Hopefully, Jobs’ modest proposal will spur them to find fresh ways to face this challenge.

On to live entertainment:

Thursday: “The Male Intellect,” Claremont Opera House – It’s a weekend for laughter, with Dubac’s critically acclaimed one-man show tonight, and Brooklyn funny woman Mary Dimino Friday at Hullabaloo in downtown Claremont. Dubac hilariously explores the confusing gulf between the sexes, while the down-to-earth Dimino looks at life from a female perspective, including this funny take on weight: “I started as a woman, and ended up Spongebob Squarepants.”

Friday: – Pondering Judd, Salt Hill Pub – A first-time appearance by this Seacoast Americana combo, who can pick and grin like Nashville cats, and then kick out the jams with e-Phish-iency (sorry about the pun, it’s been that kind of day). They’ve opened for Guster and the Saw Doctors, and were just named best rock band of 2006 in a recent Portsmouth poll.

Saturday: Last Kid Picked, Newport Opera House –
Local heroes hold down the musical end of Winter Carnival for another year. They’ll play everything from “My Prerogative” to “Boys of Summer” – the Ataris’ version. Newport boasts the oldest winter carnival in the country; this is the 91st year. LKP hasn’t played every one, but they’ve done a bunch. The best part about this show, perhaps, is that it’s indoors.

Sunday: Mike Monaghan, Center at Eastman – Saxophonist Monaghan freelances with the Boston Pops, and has worked with Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Anita O’Day. Sunday’s show begins with the Bill Wightman-led JOSA Ensemble, who will then back Monaghan. There’s a real chemistry between Wightman’s band and the musicians he recruits for JOSA that makes each performance special and unique.

Tuesday: Altan & Paul Brady, Hopkins Center – This is a great double bill of Irish music, featuring Altan, a six-piece traditional band, and Brady, a terrific songwriter who’s given songs to everyone from Bonnie Raitt to Bob Dylan. Brady will do his own set and sit in with Altan. His soulful voice should blend well with lead vocalist Maihread Ni Mhaonaigh’s pristine soprano.

Wednesday: Jerry Douglas, Iron Horse – He didn’t invent the Dobro, a resonator guitar turned flat and played with a combination of steel sliding and finger picking. But to hear the sounds emanating from Douglas as his hands float and dance across the instrument, you’d be forgiven if you thought otherwise. He often backs people like Allison Krause. To see him up front is a real treat.