Local Rhythms – That’s customer service

Screen shot 2009-10-01 at 9.29.07 AMMusically, summer began early and ended late this year.  But what do you call the damp chilliness that came in between?

Summer for hobbits, perhaps.  I know I felt like a mushroom for most of the last three months.

The words “rain or shine” had a poignant meaning for anyone trying to make or enjoy music. Every ticket purchase was a bet on the weather.  July was a washout, and August wasn’t much better.

For promoters trying to do business in this down economy, things were bleak indeed.  Live Nation lawn seats went unsold by the thousands, even when practically given away.

Of course, after years of sticking it to fans with inflated prices, ridiculous fees and scalping good tickets, their comeuppance was overdue.

Still, it seemed like Mother Nature was piling on.

Taking care of customers can be rewarding, however. Two examples stand out.

In early June, Roots on the River celebrated its 10th year in Bellows Falls with four blissful days of music, most of them rain-free.  It began as a whimsical way to bring Fred Eaglesmith to town for a couple of days, now “Fred Fest” is an institution.

Ray Massucco dubbed this year’s event “Fred X” – an absolutely, positively good time.  “Fredheads,” as Mr. Eaglesmith’s fans are fondly known, responded in force.  Deluxe weekend packages, including goodie bags and other special treats, were close to sold out.

But everyone, courtesy of Ray, got a piece of cake.  That’s taking care of business.

Over in the Lakes Region, Meadowbrook U.S. Cellular Pavilion presented 25 shows, ranging from classic rock, jazz, indie and a lot of country music.  Unlike many in the business, when their season ended, Meadowbrook’s management was pleased.

Next year will commence Gilford facility’s 15th year.  It began as a portable stage and folding chairs in the middle of a field, now it’s the classiest concert facility in all of New England.  Its’ sightlines, concessions and margaritas are the best around.

What’s amazing to me is that many people barely know it exists.

One trip should change that.

A building is just concrete and steel. The Meadowbrook difference is the smile on every employee’s face and the customer care that’s constantly on display.  Little touches like free parking, same-day ticket deals and letting fans lay away seats matter too.

As Alan Jackson sang “Remember When” on Saturday, I recalled when customer service and live music weren’t mutually exclusive.

Fortunately, such care survives in Bellows Falls and Gilford.

On to the rest of the week:

Thursday, Oct. 1: Acoustic Coalition, Hartness House – Here’s something new. An acoustic open mike series that’s been running for years in Woodstock and Quechee comes to Springfield, Vermont, hosted by Mark Koch.  The Hartness House is a beautiful old mansion with tons of charm, with plans for more music in the weeks to come (like Hungrytown’s Rebecca Hall next Thursday).

Friday, Oct. 2: Bob Marley, Claremont Opera House – One of the funniest people alive, and the hardest working comedian I know is back for another area show.  Unlike many comics, Bob brings a new set of material every time he comes to town.  He can form a bit in his head in the morning and have it audience-ready by the time he walks on stage, riffing on current events, his parents and life in New England.  He’s the essence of Ha!

Saturday, Oct. 3: Christabel & the Jons, Salt hill Pub – A Knoxville, Tenn. band led by a singer with an angelic voice, backed by a band featuring upright bass, violin, accordion and occasionally trumpet.  Their new album, “Custom Made for You,” reminds me of another Knoxville chanteuse, Robinella, mixed with Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks.  Another awesomely cool “get” for the Lebanon pub – how do they do it?

Sunday, Oct. 4: Paddle Battle, Herrick’s Cove – Amidst resplendent foliage, canoe enthusiasts of all levels will enjoy the Connecticut River, either by relaxing or pushing themselves to the limit.  There’s a course laid out for the serious racer, while casual paddlers can enter an open class race, or help with river cleanup.  Music provided by Springfield legends the Illusion, a band that’s been at it for over 40 years. More: http://www.ctrpaddlebattle.com

Monday, Oct. 5: This is Our Victory Tour, Hooker-Dunham (Brattleboro) – A metal show with Beneath the Sky, Corpus Christi, A Breath Beyond Broken and two others.  Presented by Graveyard Booking, also doing a 7-band show at Springfield’s newest venue, 802 Music, on Saturday, Oct. 3.

Wednesday, Oct. 7: Emily Lanier, Marshland Farm – I enjoyed her with New Kind of Blue.  After leaving that group, the jazz vocalist formed the Emily Lanier Jazz Ensemble, with a rotating pool of talent playing a steady diet of standards like “I Don’t Know Enough About You,” “Deed I Do” and “Stormy Weather.”

Local Rhythms – Keeping The Live Music Flame Alive in Southern Vermont

raym1As the 2006 Roots of the River Festival wound down, Charlie Hunter told me he was ready for a rest.  Half a year later, he was still promoting shows in Bellows Falls.

But Charlie was working on a graceful exit.

“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,” he told me.  “My hope is … he can step up to the plate.“

That “guy” was self-described “recovering lawyer” Ray Massucco – and boy, did he ever.

Ray’s Vermont Festivals LLC is gearing up for another long weekend of Fred Eaglesmith and friends, and planning a bevy of local shows in the coming months.

He couldn’t persuade a well-known shipping company to sponsor “Fred X” – Ray’s nickname for the 10th annual show.  But everything else is firing on all cylinders.

Slide guitar ace Sonny Landreth shares the bill with Chris Smither at a Bellows Falls Opera House show opening the June event.  Red Molly and Josh Maiocco are confirmed for the weekend, while negotiations are ongoing with other big names.

Upcoming shows at Boccelli’s on the Canal include Mark Erelli with Stephen Chipman on February 6, and a great double bill featuring Boccelli’s favorite Chris O’Brien and the local debut of folksinger Jenee Halstead set for February 28.

Seth Glier and Roots show-stealer Mary Gauthier visit in March and April, respectively.

Though Massucco is continuing Charlie Hunter’s Flying Under Radar tradition of bringing the best up and coming Americana talent to southern Vermont, he’s put his own unique stamp on things.

Last fall, he persuaded the Vermont Symphony Orchestra to make its first-ever Bellows Falls appearance.  They loved the newly renovated Opera House, and will return for an encore performance in October.

Massucco says the region lacks the population density to book two shows every month.  But he’s encouraged that music fans from as far away as Northampton, Massachusetts are making the trek to Vermont for something other than skiing and leaf peeping.

As June approaches, I asked Ray how it felt to be a seasoned pro.

“I’ll tell you when I get there,” he answered modestly, cautioning that it will only be his third festival.  “I need to match Charlie’s seven, but if they are all this much fun, I’ll keep going.”

I’m betting he’ll get there.

What’s up for the weekend?

Thursday: Sweet Honey in the Rock, Rollins Chapel – The gospel quintet perform Friday at the Hop; today’s appearance is a special outreach called “The Power of Song: Singing in the African-American Tradition.” It’s an interactive vocal workshop demonstrating “how music crosses class divides to develop cooperative spirit in African-American communities.” As Pete Townshend sings – you can dance while your knowledge is growing.

Friday – (Who Are The) Brain Police, 7 Barrel Brewery – “No f-ing ballads!” is this cheeky band’s slogan.  They borrow both their name and spirit from Frank Zappa, but oddly their song list doesn’t include anything from the Mothers of Invention.  They do cover everything else, from AC/DC to the Dead Milkmen, and keep the fun quotient high.  A set highlight is their breakneck rendition of Ween’s “Stroker Ace.”

Saturday – Spectris, Stone Church (Brattleboro) – A five-band show includes local power trio Spectris, Curst, A Breath Beyond Broken, and In Memory Of Pluto – with one more to be added. This one’s for people who like their music hard and unrelenting.  It’s presented by Graveyard Booking, which has plans for at least two more Brattleboro shows in the coming months, and clear ambitions for many more.

Sunday: Click Jam, Peter Christian’s Tavern – This weekly jam session got underway at the end of December.  It features Click Horning, who fronted Night Kitchen back in the day and now leads an eponymous trio. Bill Staines and Harvey Reid, among others, have covered Click’s songs.  Former Night Kitchen member Gerry Putnam stops by occasionally, along with other friends.  It’s a nice new addition to the local scene.

Tuesday: Acoustic Coalition, Murphy Farm – This loose affiliation embodies the Upper Valley scene. Most of the players at this weekly jam session, based in Quechee for the winter, gig with other bands – some with several. Dave Clark often leads the festivities (though a few of his weekly missives have come from out of state); Dave’s Yellow House Media website, a great source for all things local and musical, contains a sampling of the inspired fun that transpires.

Wednesday: The Year of Magical Thinking, Briggs Opera House – Northern Stage presents this devastating account of grief and loss.  Joan Didion’s husband John Gregory Dunne died suddenly just days after their daughter entered the hospital with pneumonia (she died of pancreatitis less than a year later).  In writing about coping and caring for her sick daughter, Didion employs characteristic precision; the result is a masterpiece. Vanessa Redgrave performed the one-woman show on Broadway,

VSO Makes Its First Stop In Bellows Falls 1 October

When he’d finally convinced the Vermont Symphony Orchestra to bring the annual “Made In Vermont” tour to the Bellows Falls Opera House, says Ray Massucco, “I felt like the dog chasing the car – now what am I gonna do?”

A year of back-and-forth emailing between Massucco, a lawyer and part-time concert promoter, and VSO Executive Director Alan Jordan led to a site visit early this spring.

Jordan was immediately taken by the recently renovated opera house. “I don’t think they were here an hour before Alan said, ‘we’re coming to Bellows Falls this year,’” recalls Ray.  “He told me, ‘this is ideal acoustically for the kind of show we present.’”

So, on Wednesday, October 1, the oldest state-sponsored orchestra in the country will make its first appearance in Bellows Falls, with a musical salute to autumn.  The program includes “Holberg Suite,” Grieg’s Baroque homage to the Danish writer originally written for piano, George Gershwin’s lilting “Lullaby,” and Vivaldi’s masterpiece, “The Four Seasons.”

The centerpiece of the performance is the premiere of “Autumn Rhapsody,” a commissioned piece composed by Pierre Jalbert.

Jalbert grew up in South Burlington, winning regional composition and piano competitions while still in his teens. Later, he studied at Oberlin Conservatory and earned a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania.  Most recently, Jalbert was awarded the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s 2007 Stoeger Award, given biennially “in recognition of significant contributions to the chamber music repertory.”

Currently, Jalbert serves as an Associate Professor at Rice University, where he’s taught since 1996.

The show began as a labor of love, but as it started to gel, Ray Massucco saw an opportunity to meld it with another big part of his community work, the Rockingham Free Public Library.  He chaired the organization for many years, and recently stepped down to become secretary, and head up the library’s Centennial Committee.

He realized the show corresponded almost perfectly with another important event in the town’s history.

“This concert is 100 years to the week of the day we laid the cornerstone for the library – October 8, 1908,” says Massucco. With that in mind, he decided the concert should kick off a year of celebration, in advance of marking the centennial of the building’s official opening, in November of 1909.”

“The inaugural concert of the VSO in BF kicks off the centennial year,” says Massucco.  “It really brings it all together.”

He’s faced significant challenges organizing such a large undertaking.  For starters, there are 35 musicians to house and feed.  There’s marketing for an event that’s worlds away from the “Roots on the River” Americana music festival he’s been staging since 2007, or the occasional shows he promotes at Boccelli’s on the Canal.

Realizing that, under the best of circumstances, he’d only make back 60 percent of the show’s costs – that was when he most felt like the dog catching the car.

Massucco has succeeded in courting underwriters for the show, “Angels” paying up to $500 a ticket to defray his expenses.  He’s also sold many second-tier underwriter tickets, which include a pre-show reception with Pierre Jalbert and VSO conductor Jaime Laredo.

Laredo will both conduct and play violin.  Classical neophyte Massucco said, “I had no idea how famous he is everywhere else.” The Bolivian-born musical prodigy began his musical career at age five, and has recorded with Isaac Stern, Yo-Yo Ma, and Emanuel Ax, as well as collaborating with Glenn Gould.

“It’s been steep learning curve, but I’m getting excited,” says Massucco. In typical fashion, he’s already looking towards the future.  “I asked them, ‘if I sell out the house, will you come back next year?’”

“They said, ‘if you sell out the house, we will be back next year.”