Local Rhythms – Musical Independence

Picture 6I was all set to write about the Fourth of July until my mood was interrupted by thoughts of a different sort of independence.

A common thread runs through many of the interviews I’ve done with female singer-songwriters – they all cite Patty Griffin as a key influence.  Many have said she’s the reason they started writing songs.

Which brings a special poignancy to the way Griffin’s early career was mismanaged by record companies.

Her label (A&M) tried to turn Griffin’s first album into a country-rock comic book before scrapping the studio sessions and releasing her original demo.  Thank goodness – “Living With Ghosts” is a raw, naked masterpiece, rivaled only by Joni Mitchell’s “Blue” for its seminality.

She wasn’t as lucky with “Silver Bell,” her would-be third album.  It became a hostage of A&M’s sale to Interscope, and has never been released.

Fortunately, Patty Griffin chose not to be beaten down by this situation.  She severed ties with her new label, and signed with Dave Matthews’ ATO Records.

What followed was a career-defining body of work that’s still in progress.

How much more artistic freedom does she have?  Her next album is a collection of gospel covers!

Over the years, “Silver Bell” has become something of a holy grail for me, and I’ve managed to find all but one track online.

But last weekend I was surprised by some great news.

A musician who worked on “Silver Bell” gave a close to perfect copy of the sessions (including a track I didn’t even know existed) to a blogger, who proceeded to leak it the world.

God bless him – great music must be heard.

We are witnessing an era of independence like no other, with artists in control of their destinies, and the checkbook clowns who once owned them dead on the side of the road.

Follow my lead, and steal a copy of “Silver Bell.”

Ask yourself – what’s the possible upside of keeping this music away from the public?

Why waste time, as EMI did recently, refusing to participate in efforts to grow the Internet as a music distribution platform and dreaming of a return to 1990?

Ifhippies can’t bring back Woodstock Nation, what makes the record business think there’s another Michael Jackson out there capable of moving 20 million units?

It’s time to get real – set the music free.

Happy Independence Day – here’s the happenings:

Thursday: Antje Duvekot & Chris O’Brien, Boccelli’s – A wonderful night of folk music in Bellows Falls, featuring Duvekot, a singer-songwriter who gets better every day (her latest, produced by Richard Shindell, is a gem).  O’Brien is a BF favorite who’s working on a new album to follow his scintillating debut, 2007’s “Lighthouse.”  I’ve been looking forward to this one for a long time.

Friday: Diana Krall, Meadowbrook U.S, Cellular Pavilion – I confess, I knew a lot about Krall’s interpretive singing style and very little about her musicianship until I saw her on her husband Elvis Costello’s “Spectacle.”   Her piano playing is amazing.  Elton John interviewed her, and his smitten air playing told me all I need to know – this will be a great show.

Saturday: Neil Diamond, Boston Esplanade – OK, there’s a ton of stuff going on today – Woodstock’s old fashioned fourth, Avi & Celia in Bellows Falls (and Brattleboro), fireworks everywhere, Roadhouse at the Anchorage.  But if I could be one place only, it would next to the Charles River experiencing the annual Pops concert featuring the reborn Diamond and an unbelievable show in the sky.

Sunday:  Áine Minogue, St. Gaudens – The summer series of concerts begins in Cornish with this Irish-born harp player, vocalist, folklorist and lecturer. The Boston Globe says Minogue “combines a hypnotic Celtic spirituality and contemporary sophistication in her playing and delicately lovely singing.”  I can’t think of a better instrument to waft through the statuary at Saint Gaudens, a local treasure.

Monday:  Open Mike with Second Wind, Digby’s – There’s a serious open mike scene in the area.  Terry Ray Gould hosts this Sunapee confab with his partner Suzy Hastings, and his Facebook posts about it have been positively giddy.  Serious fun, prizes, drink specials and loads of musical camaraderie.  They must call it “hospitality night” for a reason.  For my money, it’s a perfect way to spend Monday night.

Wednesday: Yvonne & the Reverbs, Lyman Point Band Shell – Outdoor shows seem to be a dodgey venture these days – will the rain ever end?  Fortunately, this weekly free series of summer shows repairs to the Bugbee Senior Center if the skies open up.  This Wednesday, it’s a country rock band with a good reputation in area clubs for keeping the energy level high.

Jenee Halstead – Old Time, Internet Time

In a cavernous living room lit with the glow of 24 candles, Jenee Halstead and her band start to play. There are no wires, spotlights or microphones, simply a half circle of four musicians standing in a corner. The scene brings to mind a Depression-era campfire, not a suburban house concert a few miles south of Boston, with well-to-do guests nibbling catered barbeque and sipping wine from long-stemmed glasses.

The near-absence of light makes such a mental leap more possible. The group’s strumming forms are mere shadows; the hazy darkness punctuated by fiddle salvos, deft guitar and mandolin runs, and Halstead’s quivering, sweetly crooning voice.

Though the music is deep and distant, the story behind its creation is as modern as an iPhone. Using MySpace, Facebook and other technology tools of the independent music trade, talents were verified, reputations vetted and friendships cemented days, even weeks before anyone met face to face to play songs that would make Woody Guthrie smile in approval.

Or even George Clinton, as Halstead’s rapidly assembled network of bluegrass purists, an old school producer, his song doctor wife and some electronica-affected friends combined to make “The River Grace,” a pitch perfect blend of traditional picking and modern tweaking.

Old time, meet Internet time.

“It happened really quickly,” Halstead says. Soon after arriving in Boston in mid-2006, she created a MySpace page. “I had some recordings I’d done right before I left Seattle. Within literally 2 or 3 days, I got a comment from Matt Smith at Club Passim.”

Smith, who manages the venerable Cambridge folk institution, which just celebrated its 50th anniversary, told Halstead he liked her stuff and to keep in touch. He also mentioned her to some of his friends.

Meanwhile, Jenee placed an ad on the Craig’s List web site, with an eye towards putting together a band in the spirit of Crooked Still. “I always wanted to do bluegrass, but didn’t think I could because I wasn’t schooled in it.” Of her reservations about seeking out seasoned pickers, she says, “it was like walking on sacred ground.”

Guitarist Andy Cambria answered the ad. “I heard her stuff and knew right away that she could be in front of a band,” he says.

Five weeks and a flurry of e-mails later, they were playing together.

Halstead divided her time between building a name in Boston and recording an album in Pennsylvania. The solo acoustic project collapsed in a cloud of romantic confusion with the record’s producer. “Trying to decide if we were going to be a couple … got too difficult,” she says. “It was disheartening to lose all that work, all those hours.”

“Out of the blue, I got an email from Evan Brubaker, saying Matt Smith told me to check you out.” Though she had long lived in the same city as the producer, Smith’s e-mail was their first introduction.

“I’m totally horrified that you lived in Seattle for nine years and I never knew about you,” wrote Brubaker to Halstead.

“I was instantly drawn to her mixture of old time and poetry,” says Brubaker. “I let her know that if she ever needed to do some recording, I would be honored.”

Halstead’s songs are at once beautiful and tinged with night-sweat inducing dread – Appalachian gothic tales of fear, suffering and salvation. Things aren’t simple, meanings are never quite clear.

Though she describes herself as “non-religious but spiritual,” themes of heaven and hell abound. Death is a constant companion.

If Flannery O’Connor were raised in Spokane, Washington, listening to her father’s Led Zeppelin albums, she might have sounded like this.

On the title track from “The River Grace,” a woman struggles to live in a time of war. When, at the song’s bridge, she implores, “embrace the undertow/take me home,” it’s not certain whether she’s praying to be carried across the waves or beneath them.

A crime spree at the heart of “Darkest Day” echoes Robert Earl Keen’s “Road Goes on Forever,” but the tragedy at song’s end is more palpable, the heroine’s devastation permanent.

Then there’s “Dusty Rose,” a song that seems lifted from Loretta Lynn’s Jack White sessions. It’s either a murder ballad or the final sad chapter of “Stand By Your Man” – the singer won’t tell.

Halstead – her first name rhymes with Renee – says her songs are “stories of people’s lives that came to me subconsciously.” Whether the narrator of “Dusty Rose” is a killer or a grieving widow is something she emphatically doesn’t know.

“These are not my stories,” she says. “There’s some woman out there who owns that song. I don’t know who she is.”

“It’s a healing thing to let them go,” she continues, and let others decide their meaning.

That’s a sentiment she shares with another songwriter, Patty Griffin, who once likened her songs to children set free in the world.

The first Velvet Underground record didn’t sell a lot of copies, but (so the legend goes) everyone who bought one started a band. The same is probably true of Patty Griffin. Not a lot of people heard “Living With Ghosts” when it came out, but many young women – including Jenee Halstead – did, and were inspired to buy a guitar and a notepad.

“I don’t think I started writing songs because of her,” Jenee says, “but I think she gave me the impetus to really get on my guitar and try to do some emotional mining.

Evan Brubaker is also a fan – he even named his recording studio “Forgiveness,” after a Patty Griffin song. “’Living With Ghosts’ is the chick singer bible,” he said recently. “The songs are simple but brilliant and universal. I don’t know how many copies of that record I have given away.”

Before coming to Seattle to work on the record, Halstead and Brubaker had long phone conversations about the “old timey” record she hoped to make. “I really trusted Evan,” she says. “Who he was at his core and his vision of music and why he’s doing it lined up with everything.”

A couple of things, however, gave her pause.

Songwriting, says Halstead, “is like entering a pitch black room, and the light may never go on. And to be honest, I don’t know if I want it to.”

Opening up such a dark and solitary process to another writer was a challenge. Megan Peters is both an accomplished lyricist and Evan Brubaker’s wife. She is also, says the producer, “one of the best co-writers in existence.”

But for Halstead, letting go was a challenge. “It was very hard at first to work with Megan,” she says. “She is a tour de force, so I was a little bit intimidated by her.”

“She is truly a master of the craft,” she continues. Peters has an ability to “look at it from all angles or take a song in a direction you would never have thought about in a million years.”

Brubaker’s biggest idea of all was perhaps the one that took the most getting used to.

Hearing that keyboard player Steve Moore would be available for a few days, Brubaker says, “I got a flash of how it would all come together.”

“Steve is brilliant. He has a collection of 80’s Casio keyboards, a bunch of guitar pedals, a little amp and a Fender Rhodes. He plays free jazz, hardcore, singer-songwriter…the guy is game for anything.”

“I couldn’t imagine how keyboards fit into the old-time sound,” countered Halstead.

“We started messing around with live drum samples for fun,” she says. “I said, ‘slam a crazy (Roots drummer) Questlove beat behind “Before I Go”’ – just as a joke.”

“I loved it. Over the course of the next 24 hours it opened my mind.”

Co-mingling beat samples with mandolins, dreamy organ excursions and Dobro flourishes is, to say the least, unconventional. But it infuses “The River Grace” with adventure and irreverence, transforming it from a merely good folk album to a pivotal record that comes along once in a generation to invent a new musical language.

Photo Credits: (1 & 2) Gretjen Helene Hargesheimer 2007

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Download “Deep Dark Sea” from Jenee Halstead’s “The River Grace

“Children Running Through” – Patty Griffin’s Long Winter Journey

griffinsml.jpgTime, inexorably passing and gratefully savored, informs much of Patty Griffin’s latest effort, Children Running Through. Fittingly, it arrives amidst this season’s coldest days. Throughout the 12-song collection (13 when purchased through iTunes), it’s winter – for broken bodies and beaten souls. World-weary resignation courses through this, Griffin’s fifth and most fully realized record, and colors the chilly landscape of slow buses, empty fields and sinking vessels like flinty clouds.

Fans of every phase of Griffin’s 11-year recording career will find something to like here, from the raw acoustic folk of her earliest work to the lush arrangements on 2004’s Impossible Dream. Often, the elements come together in a single song. “No Bad News” opens with busker guitar and ends a Calypso romp, while the Dylanesque “Getting Ready” hints at the stark, percolating fury of Living With Ghosts, then shifts into a loose garage band sound familiar to anyone who’s heard a leaked Internet copy of Silver Bell, her unreleased masterpiece.

There are gentler moments, such as “You’ll Remember,” a sultry torch song that opens the disc, and the spare, nostalgic piano ballad, “Burgundy Shoes.” Griffin and producer Mike McCarthy (Spoon) again recruit Americana grand dame Emmylou Harris to sing backup to stunning effect. Framed by elegiac guitar, Harris’s brittle, beautiful voice perfectly complements “Trapeze,” the tale of an aging circus performer who has loved, lost and even taken a potion to harden her heart, yet still works without a net.

“Trapeze” is a perfect distillation of the storytelling magic heard in earlier works like “Making Pies” and “Top of the World.” It’s destined to be one she’s singing 20 years from now, and make no mistake – people will pay to experience Griffin’s timeless magic even then. For more than any songwriter, Patty Griffin crafts her music the way Shakers make chairs, seamlessly joined and breathtaking in their durable beauty.

Griffin’s songs are as lean as her frail physique, yet powerful as the train at the center of “Railroad Wings.” “There are things you don’t know you know,” observes Griffin over a lazy guitar cadence, coming to wisdom by song’s end: “as far as I can tell everything means nothing/except some things that mean everything.” Such small, beautiful jewels are everywhere on this record.

The “children running through” this disc would bury Griffin or worse, reduce her to irrelevancy. “I’m no kid/In a kid’s game,” she laments at one point, a moment later waiting to “send the ghosts on their way/tell them they’ve had their day” in “Someone Else’s Tomorrow.”

But Griffin echoes each funereal moment with one of fierce determination. On the gospel-fueled “Heavenly Day,” she sings, “tomorrow may rain with sorrow/here’s a little time we can borrow,” with the spirited abandon of a young Aretha Franklin. Throughout, she wrestles hope from her darkest moments. In “I Don’t Ever Give Up,” she states defiantly, “I’m not clean/but I’m not washed up.”

Hardly. This record probably won’t get much radio airplay, and may be completely ignored by a youth culture that consumes music like Pop-Tarts. But Children Running Through will be passed, hand-to-hand, among the gray believers who know that, as the final track (“Crying Over”) intones, “in all of this dreaming of silver and gold/is something to break this winter so cold.”