Local Rhythms – Best Live Shows of 2008

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.

Local Rhythms – Evenings of Bliss

Canoe Club 3 December 2008

Last Wednesday, I stepped into Canoe Club hoping for the best, and was rewarded with a seat close to the small stage.

That’s essential to hear the music, and sometimes not a guarantee.

Though the Hanover restaurant hosts live performers every night of the year except Thanksgiving and Christmas, music is one of many elements, not the center of attention.

But the players that night caused a lot of diners to put down their forks and pick up their ears.

Molly Venter and Cahalen David Morrison had just barely met.  Seriously – Molly said she’d asked someone on the street, “are you Cahalen?”

But after a bit of tuning up, they found their chemistry playing de rigueur standards like “Angel From Montgomery” and, in the spirit of the season, Joni Mitchell’s “River.”

Venter gave the latter some edge, singing “I made my baby cry,” and sounding like she might have enjoyed it – just a little.

Her own songs, like “Red Rubber Balls” and “Love Me Like You Mean It,” had a folk-y, Fiona Apple feel to them.

Morrison, a talented picker, switched between lap steel, guitar and mandolin, playing a strong repertoire of originals.  I particularly liked “Humble Hands.”

So, apparently, did Canoe Club owner John Chapin, who more than once took a break from his duties to listen in appreciatively.

Friday, it was all about the music, as I watched a double bill with singer-songwriters Meg Hutchinson and Chris Pureka at Boccelli’s.

A line from Pureka’s opening number stuck with me – “it might be an ordinary day/but it feels different to me.”

Music sustains me – the way a note bends, a phrase turns, or more often a combination of the two.

The spark of discovery – Cahalen David Morrison singing of “rain patting the ground like humble hands,” or Chris Pureka telling the musical story of her 95-year old grandmother in “Swann Song” – is a kind of nourishment to me.

I spoke with Cahalen between sets.  He’s from New Mexico, he told me, but he hasn’t been in the same place for longer than two weeks since last June.

He probably won’t go home until next summer.  Friday, he plays Armadillo’s in Keene.

I asked him why he does it.

“As long as I can eat and play music, I’m fine,” he told me.

It’s funny how this strange, seemingly intangible thing moves us so.

Here’s the rest of the week:

Thursday: Les Miserables, Briggs Opera House – The world’s most popular musical gets a local run, with Tim Shew in the lead role.  Shew plays Valjean, a reformed thief who cannot escape his past.  “Les Miz” plays through January 4; there’s an Opening Night gala tomorrow, with a cast reception after the show, as well as a “Celebrity Sunday” Q&A December 14.  Epic story, great songs, you can’t go wrong with this performance.

Friday:  Gandalf Murphy & the Slambovian Circus of Dreams, Bradford Academy – A mainstay of the now-shuttered Middle Earth Music Hall returns to Bradford for a special “Christmas with Gandalf” show.  Performing traditional songs “with a Slambovian twist” along with favorites like “Circus of Dreams” and “Alice in Space.”  Some of the proceeds will benefit the Oxbow High School music department.

Saturday: The Strangelings, Tunbridge Town Hall – An area folk music supergroup of sorts, with Pete and Maura Kennedy, along with Hungrytown’s Ken Anderson and Rebecca Hall, talented songwriter Christina Thompson Lively, Eric Lee and Cheryl Prashker.  They cover some of my favorites, including Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” and “White Bird,” a venerable chestnut from It’s a Beautiful Day.

Sunday: Nutcracker, Claremont Opera House – It can’t be Christmas without a sugar plum fairy, as the New Hampshire School of Ballet performs Tchaikovsky’s holiday masterpiece for the fourth year in a row.  The story of toys come to life has surely scared the wits out of a few small children over the years – or at least that’s the excuse my sisters used for not being able to sleep on Christmas Eve.

Tuesday: Irish Sessions, Salt hill Pub – In addition to this weekly traditional song circle, which starts early and never gets old, the Pub is reviving open mike night this Thursday.  December is rich with talent on every evening, at both the Lebanon and Newport locations, where Oneside does a twofer next week.  The always-stellar Sirsy, the biggest sounding duo on the planet, play this Saturday on the green.

Wednesday: Dave Clark, Parker House – Dave has more hats than Bartholomew Cubbins, if you suss my Seussian drift.  The Yellow House web site just received a revamp, making it easier to navigate through all great local music streaming there.  A new episode of “Homegrown” featuring a summer performance from area jam band Twiddle just went up.  Oh, and he plays in more bands than I can count.

Local Rhythms – Alumni Weekend

Since I grew up in a California city with four different high schools, the idea of Alumni Weekend seemed quaint when I came to Claremont in 1980.

I’ve come to realize just how important it is to the local community: a chance to renew old ties and catch up on life’s changes. Every June, regardless of time or distance, Claremont is once again home.

The focal point is, of course, Saturday’s annual Alumni Day parade. Graduates from as far back as 1930 ride in vintage cars and often astounding floats – this year’s theme is “Our Beautiful Parks” – that represent weeks, even months of planning and preparation.

Adding to the pomp and circumstance is a new VIP viewing stand, stationed in front of Hullabaloo, that allows past teachers and honored guests to watch as marching bands and reveler-filled flatbed trucks pass in review.

Rain or shine, it’s an event not to be missed.

One of my favorite moments happens Friday night at the Stevens High School Band’s annual Pops Concert, when past members are invited to join in and jam at the end of the show. This year’s music includes songs from the Beatles and Elton John catalog, a bit of Broadway music, and selections from recent school productions of “Grease” and “Bye Bye Birdie.”

On Saturday, there’s dancing in the streets as well, with local rockers the Rhythm Junkies holding forth downtown from noon until three. Pleasant Street will be bustling with food booths, while Broad Street Park will have plenty of activities for kids, including a clown and a giant slide.

Later that night there’s a banquet at the Stevens gym, and then a Moose Lodge performance by Stan Jr., a Derry, New Hampshire singer with a knack for stringing together several decades’ worth of tunes, punctuated with a Las Vegas showman’s gift for gab.

Stan Jr. charmed the crowd at the Alumni Association’s “Super Legends” benefit last fall. So, says association secretary Pauline Pelletier, “he’s back by popular demand.”
As is Alumni Weekend, without fail; Stevens, it’s been noted many times, has the longest-running, continuously active high school alumni effort in the country. That’s due to hard work and a durable community fabric – and, of course, Cardinal Pride.

Now, on to the rest of the entertainment calendar:

Thursday: Farmer’s Market, Claremont – A TV nutritionist recently explained that French people stay skinny and live longer lives because they eat real food. Whole grains, fresh fruit and vegetables, not the kind of stuff you pick up at the drive-through window. This weekly merchant gathering provides a bevy of locally grown produce, along with crafts and yes, music. The Sugar River String Band performs, with different talent promised through autumn.

Friday: Oneside, Salt Hill Pub – This Boston-based band makes stops at Charlestown’s Heritage Tavern (the next is July 14), but I caught them first at Lebanon’s pub on the green. They combine elements of Dave Matthews Band with Bela Fleck’s spirited musical flights, along with a few southern accents. Check out “Got To Go” on their MySpace site. Ian Knox redefines that banjo as an electric instrument. Plus, you can dance to it.

Saturday: Shana Morrison, Ascutney Resort – The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, as Van’s daughter returns for a brief (two date) Eastern tour. She played the Crow’s Nest last winter to a sold-out crowd. The sight lines left a lot to be desired, so with any luck they’ll relocate the music to a bigger room. Shana mixes her dad’s gems (she sat in during Van the Man’s 2006 tour) with some fine originals. The dreamy, Worcester-based Curtain Society backed her last time out.
Sunday: Pete Merrigan, Murphy’s – Pete’s back and he’s everywhere – Sophie & Zeke’s tomorrow, New London’s Snyder’s College Cafe on Saturday and Sunday at this Sunapee eatery, a favorite Merrigan haunt for years. It’s been gussied up, with a new chef and menu. Bleu cheese crusted filet and a Mont Blanc white chocolate raspberry pyramid are among the new items on the menu. But you can stick with margaritas, chips and salsa – nobody will mind.

Monday: Molly Venter, Canoe Club – After Marko the Magician goes from table to table like most Monday nights, this New Haven-born singer/songwriter debuts at the Canoe. Judging from the songs on her MySpace page, she has the lyrical sensibilities of Ani DiFranco (“I have trouble relating/when I’m self-medicating”) and a soaring voice that reminds me a bit of Jann Arden.
Wednesday: Albert Hammond Jr., Pearl Street – The force behind indie darlings the Strokes made a solo album that shows he learned a thing or two from his father, who wrote “It Never Rains In Southern California.” Junior’s “Yours To Keep” isn’t bubble gum pop, but it’s got more sheen than most post-punk.