Mark Erelli Comes To Fred Fest With A Great New CD

Thursday, June 5 will be a return of sorts for Mark Erelli. “It feels like coming back to visit old friends,” says the singer-songwriter, who performed at Oona’s and the Windham when they were both open.

Erelli opens the ninth annual “Fred Fest,” four days of music officially called Roots on the River, with a set at the newly remodeled Bellows Falls Opera House. He’ll play songs from his forthcoming album, then join Lori McKenna’s band for her headliner set, something he’s been doing for the past few years.

Usually, he sticks to backing McKenna, a task that last year found him in front of thousands of Tim McGraw and Faith Hill concert fans and national television audiences, and in support of her “Unglamorous” album. But with a new record to promote, Erelli’s doing double duty.

“These nights are really hectic for me,” he says. “I have to activate different parts of my brain as a solo player and a sideman.”

The new album, called “Delivered,” is due for release later this summer, though fans can buy it at a few select preview shows. It’s a work that Erelli considers to be the high point of his 10-year career; a deft blending of the topical and personal.

“It’s like ‘Hope and Other Casualties,’ only more so,” he says, though it’s imbued with a sense of optimism that was missing from his last album of new songs two years ago. He isn’t pulling his punches, whether denouncing a president “who’d rather talk to Jesus than those who disagree” or lamenting history’s courageous leaders who were “rewarded with a bullet to the brain,” but Erelli seems to have more faith that things will turn out well.

The title of the record’s opening track, for example, is “Hope Dies Last.” In it, Erelli bookends the world’s problems – floods, fear and tyrants – with his own domestic bliss. The buoyant “Once” celebrates the birth of his first child, an event that informs much of the record’s mood.

“There’s a certain amount of bravery and fearlessness that you have to have as an independent artist,” he says. “You also have to be a little crazy. Parenting reinforces that.”

The album’s centerpiece is the title song, a haunting, gorgeous meditation of enduring love. With a beautiful counterpoint from Crooked Still vocalist Aoife O’Donovan, “Delivered” is an elegy wrapped with a sense of wonder, stark in mood and deceptively simple in structure.

For the project, Erelli used a new producer and a group of musicians he’d long admired, but never played with. “This record is unique in that I came to it with fewer preconceived notions than anything I’ve done.”

He borrowed his studio band, including producer Zack Hickman, from former label mate Josh Ritter. “I was lucky to be able to import a certain amount of musical chemistry right off the bat, even though we didn’t know each other when we started,” says Erelli. “It was a very easy, unforced process.”

He’d made five records with long-time collaborator Lorne Entress, but felt he needed a change. “We had and still have a great relationship, but we got to the point where we’d done so many things,” he says. “It seemed like a good time to broaden my horizons.”

With financing locked in, and a heady period of his life winding down, Erelli began work on “Delivered” feeling loose, and ready for anything,

“I’d just gotten of the Tim/Faith tour, we had our baby and two weeks later I went into the studio. I didn’t have the energy to be stressed out by what were we going for. I had a group of songs I felt strongly about, I knew we had a great group of musicians. I kind of trusted that was going to be enough. I think we came up with my best record to date, and I never thought I’d be able to say that seven records in.”

“Delivered” was made through a creative financing scheme that Erelli dubbed a “musical barn raising.” “I got a bunch of fans to contribute all different kinds of money and basically paid for the project in advance,” he says.

Backers included old college friends, long time fans and supporters, some of whom he knew well, and others he didn’t. When he began advertising for investors early in 2007, Erelli was unsure of what kind of response he’d receive. He wound up with more money than he’d planned on in less time than anticipated.

He found the experience both gratifying and artistically liberating, and something he’d happily do again. The approach, he says, “relies on something real, the people that actually know they want my record, as opposed to investing all kinds of funds up front from a record company.”

For their contributions, each “barn raiser” received an early copy of “Delivered,” along with posters, unreleased tracks and other goodies.

Erelli recalls performing at one of the earliest Fred Eaglesmith weekends, in 2001. “It makes no sense at all,” he says. “Fred’s great, and there’s many people that deserve their own festival booked around them, but to see in this one little town in Vermont that has fallen for him and draws people from all around the world to do this event. I call it blissfully random. It works – I’m glad it does, and grateful to be a part of it.”

Local Rhythms – Dreaming of June

sun_flowers.jpgThe net effect of winter has my brain feeling like a frost-heaved road. I’ve had one or two glimpses of my lawn since November, and a few 40-degree days strung together make me punch-drunk.

Let the temperature cross 50, and I’m hallucinating cabanas and boat drinks.

Sunday’s bright sky got me thinking about summer music. I know, spring is barely a week old old, but that’s how I roll. While my neighbors are measuring flowerbeds and opening seed orders, I’m waiting for the snow to melt through my pool cover and checking the price of chlorine.

That’s when I’m not thinking about stretching out on a lawn to watch bands play.

There’s reason to be excited. June’s barely two months away, and the festivals returning for 2008 are better than ever.

Some cabin-fevered folks can barely wait. LimboFest lands in Northampton, Massachusetts on April 12, with the Alchemystics headlining a day of funky beats. It’s a little early for an outdoor event, but the promoters promise a heated tent for protection from the elements.

The Strange Creek Campout, a two-day, tie-dyed delight happens May 23-24 in Greenfield, with Dead-alikes Max Creek, the bluesy Ryan Mountbleau Band, Strangefolk and local heroes the Kind Buds.

At the end of May, the Discovery Jazz Festival kicks off in Burlington. The lineup is still under construction – Marcia Ball and the New Groove Orchestra are set. Organizers hope to unveil a statue of Big Joe Burrell, a cornerstone of the Vermont music scene until his death in 2005.

June is the sweet spot, starting with the (world famous) Roots on the River gathering. This year’s “Fred Fest” again features Fred Eaglesmith leading a few different bands, along with a Lori McKenna/Mark Erelli show at the Bellows Falls Opera House, as well as Steve Forbert, Mary Gauthier, Eilen Jewell and others performing outdoors.

Meadowbrook began with a bunch of chairs in an open field. Now it’s on a lot of best venue lists, with a roof, good sound, a bar and corporate sponsor. ZZ Top (June 19) and an updated Volunteer Jam with Charlie Daniels (June 21), help welcome the bikers to the Lakes Region.

Robert Plant is touring with Alison Krauss. In the interim, her Union Station band mates miust make their own way. Dobro master Jerry Douglas swings through the area in mid-April, while “Man of Constant Sorrow” writer (and native Vermonter) Dan Tymynski headlines the four-day Jenny Brook Bluegrass Festival in Weston beginning June 26.

Here are some things to make the wait for summer go faster:

Thursday: Spring Savories, Claremont Opera House – Piano player John Lovejoy serenades as patrons partake in an “epicurean adventure” that includes food from area restaurants and wines provided by the NH State Liquor Commission. The event, a fundraiser for the region’s most beautiful (and recently re-opened) Opera House, gets better every year.

Friday: Toots and the Maytals, Lebanon Opera House (moved to April 8, 2008) If reggae has a Hall of Fame, the first inductees would likely include this band, if for no other reason that their association with “The Harder They Come,” a film that introduced the Jamaican music to the world in the early 1970s. Though not as famous as Bob Marley, musicians like the Clash and Specials covered their songs.

Saturday: Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion, Boccelli’s – This duo, led by Arlo’s daughter and Woody’s granddaughter, was a surprise opening act for last fall’s Greg Brown show at the Opera House. Ever since, requests have poured in to bring them back. The precocious pair can play everything from pure country to foot-stomping mountain music.

Sunday: Spare Change, Canoe Club – Joe Stallsmith’s name comes up a lot in the history of area music. He fronts a few different bands; this one has an old-time feel and features some incredible picking. The three-piece – guitar, mandolin and fiddle – moves from Nashville to Texas, with a long walk along the Blue Ridge Mountains. Fire up the Orange Blossom special, and enjoy some Americana.

Monday: Songwriter’s Club, Parker House – There’s a great scene in the film “Once” where a musical duo looking for financing perform their song for a banker, who responds by serenading them with one of his own (and gives them the money). Somewhere in the recesses of everyone’s mind lurks a hit. This monthly song-polishing group is run by Yellow House Media maven Dave Clark; bring your hooks, lines and stinkers, he says.

Tuesday: Gym Class Heroes, U Mass Lowell – This hip hop band made a splash with “Cupid’s Chokehold,” which pilfers Supertramp’s “Breakfast in America” and mixes it up with contemporary angst, helped out nicely by Fall Out Boy’s Patrick Stump. I like the fact that they play their own instruments, a rarity in the genre. Their sense of humor is fun, and it’s pretty much bling-free – my kind of rap.

Roots on the River Preview

fred.jpgThe Roots on the River Festival has a new promoter as it enters the eighth year, but the basic premise is still intact: pack all the music that fits into four days, each capped with a different flavor of Fred Eaglesmith.

 

The show began in 2000 as a way for promoter Charlie Hunter to quench his appetite for Eaglesmith’s hardscrabble tunes. The inaugural “FredFest” lasted two days. Over the past few years, it has grown to four, and includes many local and nationally known performers.

This year’s Roots on the River kicks off next Thursday with “Vermont Night,” featuring Josh Maiocco, Scott Ainslie, the Starline Rhythm Boys and the Sandra Wright Band. Maiocco played last year’s festival with Ingrid’s Ruse, in one of their last shows as a band. These days, he’s the host of PK’s Tuesday open microphone night at in downtown Bellows Falls. Ainslie is both a teacher and performer of American blues music, and the Starline Rhythm Boys have drawn strong notice for their faithful honky-tonk sound.

Headliner Sandra Wright has called Vermont home for some time now, but the heart and soul of her music remains her native Memphis.

Friday’s “Live At the Farmer’s Market” set is a Fred Eaglesmith Band alumni night of sorts. Both Roger Marin and Willie P. Bennett played with Eaglesmith in years past, and the 90-minute “Fred & Friends” set that closes the show should be full of happy endings.

The all-day Saturday show has been bedeviled by rain in the recent past, but that hasn’t dampened anyone’s spirits. Gandalf Murphy and the Slambovian Circus of Dreams returns after a year’s absence. Joe Gee makes the move from the parking lot to the stage, and the Dan Whitley Band will try to re-capture the energy that made their one of the most well-received sets at last year’s festival.

There’s also a lot of female energy on the bill. Red Molly, who play the second set of the day, is made up of three women who met around a campfire at the Falcon Ridge Festival. After being chosen as an emerging artist there, they’ve gone on to open for the likes of David Wilcox and Jonathan Edwards, and released a new album this spring..

Roots on the River has a long-held reputation for presenting talented artists on the verge of greater success. A few years back it was the Greencards, and last year Crooked Still played a rousing set. Both of those bands are scheduled to headline the Lebanon Opera House this autumn. On this year’s stage, Eilen Jewell seems poised for similar heights.

Story-songwriter Chris Knight writes vividly about his native Kentucky. His songs have been covered by everyone from Montgomery Gentry and John Anderson to Randy Travis and Confederate Railroad. But in his hands, they’re all his.

Iris DeMent, who performs just prior to Fred Eaglesmith, can cast a mood like Townes Van Zand – her songs could be rated with razor blades instead of stars. She should be a perfect foil for the happy-go-lucky Fred, whose Saturday set typically chugs like a runaway train. There aren’t many performers able to match his energy level.

Sunday, Eaglesmith dials things down to a more peaceful level in an all-acoustic set, sharing the Rockingham Meeting House stage with Juno nominee David Olney.

The Thursday and Saturday shows take place in Rockingham behind the Everyday Inn. Full weekend packages and individual tickets are still available.

NOTE: Friday’s shows have changed – it’s now Roger Marin and Chris Knight opening for Fred and Friends at the Everyday Inn evening show.  Also, the free Farmer’s Market set features the Roger Marin Band and Joe Gee (who also performs Saturday).

Eilen Jewell Coming To Roots on the River

eilenjewellsmall.jpgEilen Jewell’s songs seem preserved in amber and channeled from a distant time, her voice wise and weary. When Jewell, who performs next Saturday at the Roots on the River Festival, sings “So Long Blues,” it sounds like Memphis Minnie in 1941, not a 26-year old from Idaho.

Few records generated the kind of buzz Jewell’s debut CD “Boundary County” did when it came out last year. The Boston media fell over itself to anoint her as a new Americana queen, and Signature Sounds picked up the independently-released disc for distribution.

That’s the kind of attention the Northampton, Massachusetts label has only lavished on one other artist – Josh Ritter. Like Ritter, Signature’s Jim Olsen signed Jewell soon thereafter; her new disc, “Letters From Sinners and Strangers” is due for summer release.

All the attention, says Jewell, “surprised me, because in such a short amount of time it took us a lot of places. It was kind of a magic record for us.”

Eilen (rhymes with feelin’) Jewell’s musical career almost didn’t happen. She’s written songs since her teenage years, busked in college and even went to Venice, California to play in the streets. But she gave it up, went back home to Idaho, then moved to Massachusetts when a friend promised to help her find a job.

“I stayed in the Berkshires for about nine months before I started to feel it was too small,” she said. “I wanted to start performing music. I’d stopped busking since I’d left LA and it was making me feel a little aimless. I decided to move to Boston because everyrone said that was the great music town.”

There, she met drummer (and current manager) Jason Beek, who helped her put together a studio band that includes some of the region’s best roots musicians – guitarist Jerry Miller, along with violin player Daniel Kellar and upright bassist Johnny Sciasica of the Tarbox Ramblers.

“I wasn’t sure for awhile if I really wanted to have a band,” Jewell says. “I didn’t want to be a band leader – I’m not good at telling people what to do.”

Once “Boundary Country” was completed, the band did a few shows and immediately discovered an obvious onstage chemistry. “I feel really lucky for that,” says Jewell. “You can’t make that happen. You can find the best musicians in the world but you can’t really know if you click as a group. Luckily I didn’t have to go through much trial and error.”

Asked how she came to write songs that sound, in the words of Peter Mulvey, “like they’re being sung by a 65-year old woman,” Jewell says with a laugh, “that’s a really good question. I’m not sure how it happened.”

She cites Bob Dylan, Hank Williams and Lucinda Williams (whom many have compared her to), but adds, “It’s not like I consciously go out and say I want to write a song in the style of this or that musician. I hold them up as a standard to aim for, and the themes they try to write about.”

When she was 15, she discovered her father’s old record collection in a box in the attic. “I saw Dylan’s Nashville Skyline and thought I’ve heard of this guy,” she says. She had to find a turntable at a yard sale so she could listen to them, as there wasn’t one at her house. Her mother and father preferred the television.

“We weren’t a very musical family,” she explains.

Her father, however, did provide young Eilen with an experience that forever shaped her.music. For a long family driving trip, he brought along Dylan’s three disc “Bootleg Series” – and nothing else.

“That was the only soundtrack on this road trip, and it sunk in,” says Jewell. “I found myself reading all the liner notes and wondering who is Woody Guthrie? Once you start doing that you begin to realize that there’s this whole family tree – Bessie Smith, Robert Johnson…”

Despite all the recent attention, she’s keeping things in perspective. She’s excited about summer shows in Chicago and her hometown of Boise, both firsts. XM Radio invited her to play live in the studio later this year and, says Jewell, “we just found out that we’re gonna be opening for Loretta Lynn at the Calvin Theatre in Northampton this fall. She’s a hero of mine.”.

“I’ll know that I’ve arrived when I can quit the day job and have a little place with a garden and a guest bedroom.”

“I’m not very lofty when it comes to ambition,” she continues. “I’m a lifer. I’m gonna do this music thing no matter what it brings me. I want to be comfortable and only do what I love. I can’t see needing much more outside of that. Whatever it takes to get there is good for me.”

Local Rhythms – Summer Festivals Coming

fredfest.jpgForget the recent burst of warm, sunny weather. To my tune-addled brain, spring fever kicks in when summer music festival announcements begin arriving in my inbox.

Get ready to dust off the low-slung lawn chairs, it’s going to be a great season. .

I was a bit worried when Charlie Hunter suggested the annual FredFest, formally known as Roots on the River, might change signficantly this year. The only apparent difference is a new producer, Ray Massuco.

The caliber of music is unchanged.

I’d daresay it’s better, with past favorites Gandalf Murphy, up and comers Red Molly and the awesomely talented Eilen Jewell, local heroes Josh Maiocco and Scot Ainslie, and of course, the many faces of Fred Eaglesmith highlighting a four-day bash that begins June 7 in downtown Bellows Falls.

The next weekend Moodus, Connecticut hosts an all-Cajun/Zydeco festival that’s worth the trip if you need to channel your innner Boozoo. The three day bash, which starts June 15, features 10 perfomers, including Keith Frank, Brian Jack and Step Rideau.

Out in Weston, Vermont the Jenny Brook Bluegrass Festival returns, with traditional music from the Gibson Brothers, Leroy Troy, Buddy Merriam and festival hosts the Seth Sawyer Band and the Sawyer Brothers. The long weekend, produced by Candi Sawyer (notice a trend here?), begins June 21.

One of my personal favorites, the Green River Festival in Greenfield, Massachusetts, kicks off with a free Crooked Still/Eilen Jewell show July 19, then begins in earnest with a Zydeco bash featuring the Subdudes and Terence Simian the next night.

On Saturday, there’s hot air balloons and a flat-out amazing lineup of players. Blues legend Buddy Guy headlines, along with cutting edge alt-country from Southern Culture on the Skids, petite powerhouse Erin McKeown, the Kennedys and a performer I would crawl a mile over broken glass to see, Neko Case.

Acts are still being confirmed for the big daddy of regional shows, Falcon Ridge, which starts July 26th at its new home, Dodds Farm in the Berkshires. FredFest performers Red Molly and Gandalf Murphy are set, along with Marshall Crenshaw, Eddie from Ohio, Terri Hendrix and her legendary musical partner Lloyd Maines, and John Gorka.

A Falcon Ridge “Most Wanted” preview tour featuring Ellis, Pat Wictor and the aforementioned Red Molly (who met over a Falcon Ridge campfire), stops at Middle Earth Music Hall May 9.

The best part is you could buy tickets for all of these feastivals for about the price of one good seat for the Police’s Fenway Park concert.

What else is brewing this weekend?

Thursday: Billy Rosen Quartet, Sophie & Zeke’s – This jazz ensemble wowed the crowd the first time they stopped by this downtown eatery, so they’ve been asked back. First-rate players all, they step through standards and give modern songs a special touch. There’s much more music ahead at S&Z’s in the coming months, including the return of Pete Merrigan in May.

Friday: Rock Bottom Band, Electra – If you’re ready for the country, this is the place to go Friday Rock Bottom was named Country Music Band of the Year in 2006 by the New Hampshire Country Music Association, so it’s clear they know their stuff. Put on some cowboy boots, put a crease in those jeans, and practice your Electric Slide moves.

Saturday: Pulse Prophets, Salt Hill – Another interesting “get” for my favorite Upper Valley eclectic music spot, this Burlington band calls their sound an “organic and celestial fusion of funk, fegg, hip hop, Latin, and Afro-beat, with a touch of electronica. This musical stew has been known to pack a dance floor – it’s all groove to me.

Sunday: Red Fox Session Band, Boccelli’s – A local band celebrates the one year anniversary of this Bellows Falls restaurant, an afternoon (3-7 PM) buffet dinner featuring a bountiful table of food and all-around good vibrations. Boccelli’s, of course, is BF’s new home of live music; for a town that’s had its fair share of recent hard knocks, this is a welcome renaissance.

Tuesday: Colin McCaffrey, Canoe Club – This fine Vermont folksinger performs solo tonight in downtown Hanover, but look for his high energy band, the Stone Cold Roosters, at area venues in the coming weeks, celebrating the release of their new CD, “Out of the Woods.”. Their lineup regional all-stars includes Ted Mortimer and (occasionally) Linda Boudreault of Dr. Burma, former Breakway players Peter Riley and Scot Hopkins and many other hot pickers.

Wednesday: Brandi Carlile, Higher Ground – She’s the latest industry full-court press, with a “Grey’s Anatomy” video, Paste Magazine essay contest and stops on all the late-night televison shows, including Leno. Is she any good? Perhaps, but all this hype will probably bleed it out of her. Such is the music business.