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.

“Brainwashed” Shana Morrison’s Family Tradition

shana-morrison-small.jpgShana Morrison tried to chart her own path from youth to adulthood; her aspirations – business school and a career in finance – would seemingly delight most parents. But Shana’s wasn’t an ordinary household.

Her father responded to her plans with a terse question. “Why do you want to do business? Business people are a**holes.”

Later, Dad tried a more sanguine approach to coax Shana into the family trade. At graduation, he suggested she try a few months in his profession before looking for work in hers.

Thus, she joined Van Morrison for a brief tour in late 1993. 13 years later, Shana Morrison is still carrying on the family tradition.

Van Morrison’s ‘Blues and Soul Review’ tour, said Shana during a phone interview Saturday, “was a three hour show with a bunch of different musicians. I only did two songs, so it wasn’t like people had to hear his daughter squawk all night.”

After the tour, Shana joined Claddagh (leader Kevin Brennan had also worked with Van), and later formed her own band, Caledonia. “Then fans started asking for a CD,” she says, “so we thought we’ll release something as a snapshot in time. It wasn’t something that was planned. “

Shana, who performs tomorrow night at the Ascutney Mountain Resort, shares her father’s penchant for exploring many musical directions. 2002’s “Seven Wishes” was produced by studio heavyweight Steve Buckingham and has a country-pop feel. It was, says Morrison, “a really beautiful, pristine-sounding record.”

Her latest, however, churns with the raw power reminiscent of artists like Susan Tesdeschi and Bonnie Raitt. This begs the question: is the album’s title, “That’s Who I Am,” a declaration of sorts?

“Yeah, definitely,” says Morrison. “I’d never been able to record anything that was really bluesy or really R&B-oriented. That’s what the goal was for this record, to choose a group of songs that would work for that kind of approach.”

Morrison produced most of “That’s Who I Am” herself, with help from longtime guitarist Chris Collins. Listening to it, one is struck by how much fun the band seems to be having, quoting the Sugarhill Gang’s hip-hop classic “Rapper’s Delight” in “Drive,” and turning the traditional standard “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” into a high-speed rave-up. The album’s highlight is “Simple,” an epic blues number that showcases Collins and “Mighty” Mike Schermer trading off bristling guitar solos.

Unlike “Seven Wishes,” she released the new record independently. “It’s easier to record an 11 minute song without an label executive looking over your shoulder,” she says.

Morrison stuck with blues rock for the new disc. “Each time you do a record, you need to focus it a bit,” she says. Onstage, she’s less encumbered, more adventurous.

“My music can be really…” Shana pauses to explain, though anyone familiar with the many twists and turns in her father’s body of work certainly understands that the Morrison muse is nothing if not diverse. “If you come to see my show, people can get really confused. We’ll start the night with some Irish songs, then we’ll do some pop and some blues.” She’ll also put her own touch on “Van the Man” favorites like “Into the Mystic” and “St. Dominic’s Preview.”

Things will be even more interesting for this short East coast tour. Worcester chamber-pop trio The Curtain Society, augmented by Huck’s Scott Ricciuti on guitar, serve as her backup band for Friday’s performance.

Economic necessity dictates the move. “Gas prices,” she sighs. Travel costs in general make mounting a tour with a band difficult. She’s considered a solo or a duo act, “but when you’re in the bar and nightclub settings you want to do something a little more raucous,” she says.

She’s worked with the Curtain Society before. “I did some shows with them last year when I was on my way back from Europe,” she says. “They can play some really interesting things that we’ve never come up with before with my band. It may not be something an audience would notice, but it perks me up.”

Her life today is a far cry from the one she imagined in college. She once told financial writer Lee Silber that, as a child, she “envied other kids whose parents had normal jobs,” recalling how they would “live in a mansion and buy a new car and stereo system one year and have to sell it all” the next.

She is, says Morrison, “aware that most people go at this a long time and never make any money. “

“I guess I was brainwashed,” she laughs.

When she decided to become a full-time performer, “my parents were ecstatic and proud,” says Shana Morrison.

“Because what else is there better than being a musician?”