Richard Shindell’s Literary Touch

picture-182Few musicians possess the literary voice of Richard Shindell. His songs read like short stories, with an eye for detail and a knack for parable that would please fans of Raymond Carver or Flannery O’Connor.

The folksinger’s sixth album of originals (Not Far Now, Signature Sounds) is again full of well-drawn characters with tales to tell.  Among the cast are a juggler, a beaten small-time thief, a woman selling empanadas and beer from a roadside stand and a struggling junkie.

Shindell both writes and reads with equal mastery.  He memorably put his stamp on James Keelaghan’s “Cold Missouri Waters” with the folk supergroup Cry Cry Cry.  He covered Bruce Springsteen, Jeffrey Foucault, Bob Dylan and others on his last studio album (“South Of Delia”).

On his new album, Shindell updates Paul McCartney’s “She’s Leaving Home” – the product, he says, of reading Sir Paul’s biography (he calls him  “a musical hero”), and a “two-week Beatles listening binge.”

In the song (“Bye-Bye”), Shindell imagines two very different endings for the family in the Sgt. Pepper’s track.   One is stoic – “on every life some rain must fall/but that doesn’t mean we let the roses go” – another despairing, with doors askew and gardens gone to seed.

With a writer’s omnipotence, he toys with bringing the wayward daughter “back to them with a few strokes of this fountain pen,” before handing the song back to McCartney.

“That’s not how this story ends,” he sings finally.

“Providing that story with a resounding conclusion would be false and graceless,” says Shindell.

Asked if he’s ever tempted to revisit the stories in his own songs, Shindell says he tried what he terms a “kind of amplification of a character” from his first album for the title track of his third.

He pictured the woman waiting for her husband to return from war in “Reunion Hill” as the same person referred to as ‘Mama’ in “Arrowhead” (from “Sparrow’s Point”).

“The narrator of that song is a child-soldier in the Civil War who is addressing his mother (perhaps in a letter, perhaps just in his mind),” explains Shindell.  “However.  “Reunion Hill” seemed to work better if she was searching for her husband rather than her son.”

“But now you’ve got me thinking about other potential follow-up songs,” says Shindell.  “So thanks for the question. It might prove fruitful.”

Are the first person narratives dominating Richard Shindell’s work the product of a frustrated novelist?  Perhaps.

“I get vertigo writing prose,” he says.  “Too many directions, too much open space. Perhaps agoraphobia would be a better description of the sensation. But I would very much like to get over that block and write something other than songs.”

Though born in New Jersey, Shindell has for the past several years lived in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  Digital technology helped bridge the divide between the expatriate and the musicians he worked with on “Not Far Now.”

Shindell and co-producer Greg Anderson recorded basic tracks in his dining room and sent them off to bassist Viktor Krauss, drummer Steve Holley, original E Street Band keyboard player David Sancious and others, who recorded their parts..

“The entire process, from beginning to end is a series of happy accidents,” says Shindell.  String player Sara Milonovich’s contribution stands as one of the happiest.

“I thought she was going to add a fiddle – that is, one,” he says.  “Instead she sat down in a room one day and laid down an entire string arrangement, just to see what would happen. It was a total surprise, and I was thrilled.”

“But I prefer it that way,” he continues.  “I’d rather hear what a particular musician’s take on a song is before giving them too much direction.  And there’s never any harm done if they come up with something totally wrong (which hardly ever happens).”

After all, he says, ”we’re not using actual magnetic tape anymore, everything is fungible, plastic, and wide open for revision and editing.”

Shindell plays bass, acoustic and electric guitar on the record, along with piano and bouzouki.  Shindell likes the 8-stringed, teardrop shaped guitar. “As the Irish discovered well, it’s a great instrument for accompanying the human voice. It also produces a very persistent, driving kind of sound, which I find generates a certain energy in an arrangement.”

Shindell is a regular Northeast Kingdom habitué.  “I generally feel very comfortable playing for a Vermont audience,” he says.  “They’re very attentive, without being – how shall I say this? – too pious.”

However, the live album he made two years ago in Randolph had less to do with his love for the state than the Chandler Music Hall’s superior acoustics and a good recording engineer Shindell hired for the night.

He adds that one other thing factored in.  “That night in Vermont I announced from the stage that I’d be recording and that anyone present could purchase a CD in advance. Once I had taken their money, I had to come through!”

Richard Shindell @ Boccelli’s on the Canal
Bellows Falls, Vermont
25 March – 7:00 PM
Tickets – $24 (front row “Angel” seats $35)

Green River Wrap-Up

After Lucinda Williams closed out Saturday’s all-day show, Green River Festival organizer Jim Olsen was openly relieved.  “We’ve been ringed with storms all day,” he told the crowd.

But the weather, like the music, went off without a hitch, as fans were treated to one of the most varied bills in the festival’s 22-year history.

Highlights included a spirited set from Forro in the Dark, capped with the chorus, “if you don’t like Bob Marley, you’d better stay away from me.”  The Brazilian band played two sets, one on the main stage and another in the dance floor tent, attracting a large contingent of shaking bodies.

Gokh-Bi System, dressed in the traditional garb of their native Senegal, mixed Afro-pop with funk and soul.  It was quite a different sound for an audience in years past more accustomed to folk and bluegrass, but they seemed to enjoy it.

Eilen Jewell and her band did double duty, performing as the gospel Sacred Shakers early in the day, and ending the night in the dance tent with a set that ended about 40 minutes after Williams.

Big Sandy and his Fly-Rite Boys proved the biggest hit in the dance tent, with a barrio rockabilly sound that recalled Los Lobos and Eddie Cochrane.  Big Sandy was also the busiest performer of the day, fronting a stripped-down “Little Sandy” group and doing guest vocals with gonzo guitarists Los Straitjackets on the main stage, in addition to an hour-long set with his own band.

Los Straitjackets combined Dick Dale-flavored surf music  with tongue-in-cheek theatrics, wearing Mexican wrestling masks (recently popularized in the Jack Black movie, “Nacho Libre”) and using badly mangled Spanish to introduce their instrumental songs.

With Big Sandy, they played a rollicking, multilingual version of the Ernie K-Doe classic, “Mother In Law.”

Lucinda Williams’ set ranged across her last two albums, along with several unreleased songs (she has a new record due in the fall).  She ended with a surprising cover of AC/DC’s “It’s a Long Way to the Top,” which she called a “quintessential rock and roll song.”

Williams had the unenviable task of following Mavis Staples, who stole the show with a set that mixed powerful music with a social message underscored by current events and her own experiences living the changes that led to them.

She opened with a soulful cover of Stephen Stills’ “For What It’s Worth,” followed by the movement anthem, “Eyes on the Prize.”

She added her own lyrics to J.B. Lenoir’s “Down in Mississippi,” reminding the crowd of her experience marching with Dr. Martin Luther King during the civil rights struggles.  Recalling her grandmother directing her to drink from a water fountain marked with a “colored only” sign, she sang, “Dr. King tore every one of those signs down, down in Mississippi.”

She touched on her appearance in the documentary “The Last Waltz,” performing “The Weight,” and name-checking the Band’s “Robertson, Danko, Garth, Manuel and Levon.”

But her set focused on soul and gospel, a church service of sorts in the middle of a sunny day.  She choked with emotion while performing Pops Staples’ “Why Am I Treated So Bad” – a song he wrote after attending one of MLK’s sermons.

“If it weren’t for Dr. King, I wouldn’t be able to say, a black man is running for President of the United States,” said Staples through tears.  The crowd was obviously with her – when Jim Olsen introduced her, he’d pretty much called the election for Obama – but it was nonetheless a stirring moment when she sang the song’s final line:

“I think I hear someone calling my name/saying further up the road things are gonna change.”

The thread of history stretched from the stage across the field, and not a soul there wondered how they’d managed to avoid the rain drenching everyone to the north, south, east and west of them.

It was that kind of day.

Rani Arbo & daisy mayhem – Big Old Life

raniarbo.jpgThis is an ear-to-ear grin of a record, full of joy and the counting of blessings. “Raise your cup to another day,” sings bandleader Arbo on the title cut, an obvious nod to her recent battle with breast cancer. But it would be too easy to sum up the record’s buoyant mood as a simple paean to beating disease. “Big Old Life” is about surviving and thriving.

There’s nary a downbeat moment here. The hymn-like “Joy Comes Back” opens the disc and sets the tone. Equally spiritual is “Roses,” another Arbo original which describes the satisfaction of doing one thing well; it’s also a showcase for the band’s gorgeous harmonizing and spare, attentive playing.

This is a well-balanced effort, with an even mix of originals and covers. Leonard Cohen’s “Heart With No Companion” and band member Anand Nayak’s original “What’s That” touch on death’s mysteries. “Oil In My Vessel” serves up a gumbo of folk traditions; there are at least four different songs tossed together here (it’s credited to one Joe Thompson), and who knew “Amazing Grace” could sound any happier?

“Farewell Angelina” is an interesting choice for a Bob Dylan cover (“the sky is erupting/I must go where it’s quiet”), but its hootenanny tempo is light years removed from the original. “There’ll be time enough for darkness when everything’s gone,” Arbo sings over a melancholy beat on the album’s closer, a cover of Daisy May Erlewine’s “Shine On.”

That’s the message of “Big Old Life” – shake the demons from the dark moments and dance joyfully into the light.

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.”