Local Rhythms – Live Free Or Die

lrnewsmall.jpgAdapted from a previous post

There’s nothing like seeing your town on the big screen, and for many in attendance at the “Live Free Or Die” premiere Monday night at the Claremont Cinema, that was the main draw.  It isn’t for all tastes; there are more F-bombs in the film’s 90 minutes than a lot of the audience had probably heard their entire lives.

But seeing Shirley’s Donut Shop and Lambert Supply on the big screen made it all worthwhile.

The film’s profanity may be shocking, but that’s the way a real guy like fast-talking loser John “Rugged” Rudgate would operate.   To their credit, co-directors (and former “Seinfeld” writers) Greg Kavet and Andy Robin didn’t flinch when creating him, and Aaron Stanford’s star turn as Rugged is, to use the character’s favorite phrase, “shit hot.”

The small-time criminal blusters with every breath, plotting low-margin scams and paying his rent with ill-gotten rebate checks. All the while, a real crime wave grows around him in a seemingly parallel universe; it’s a neighborhood that Rugged will, of course, ultimately stumble into – and at just the wrong time.

Stanford’s good, but Paul Schneider (”Family Stone,” “Elizabethtown”) is even better, quietly stealing scene after scene as Lagrand, Rugged’s dimwitted sidekick.  With each toss of his hair, Schneider gives the film a “Napoleon Dynamite” meets “Blood Simple” charm.  It has the Coen Brothers’ sensibilities, but without the wood chipper that turned happy-go-lucky “Fargo” into Midwestern Gothic.

Contributions from top-notch character actors like Judah Friedlander (”American Splendor”), who has a memorable turn as a foul-mouthed hardware store owner, and Ultimate Fight Club wannabe Alex Gazaniga, played with equal parts stupid and sinister by Ebon Moss-Bachrach (”Mona Lisa Smile”), could well lift “Live Free or Die” from a cult sensation (it won Best Narrative at the last years SXSW) to a solid smash on a par with “Clerks” or “Garden State.” The writing’s certainly good enough, and the performances are dead-on.

I only wish Zooey Deschanel (”Elf,” “Failure to Launch”) had gotten more on-screen time as Lagrand’s sister Cheryl.  She’s apparently the only competent adult who isn’t a police officer in the fictional town of Rutland, New Hampshire (Rutland? THAT bit of dramatic license sure drew some chortles Monday night).

What I’m ultimately saying is that you should go see “Live Free or Die” when it opens tomorrow – not just because it was filmed in Claremont.

See it because it’s a shit hot funny movie.  Now, what else is going on this weekend?

Thursday: Jason Cann, Brown’s Tavern – Sadly, this in-demand singer/guitarist’s busy schedule precluded him from playing a farewell set at Claremont’s Bistro Nouveau.  He’ll be performing at the new locations in Springfield and Eastman later in the month.  Jason’s built quite an Ascutney following with his easy on the ears catalog of songs that include the Dead, Dave Matthews and Dan Loggins.

Friday: Roland Yamaguchi Band, Sophie & Zeke’s – The music lineup at downtown Claremont’s favorite dinner spot changes a bit in the coming weeks.  Tonight, it’s a reconfigured New Kind of Blue, sans vocalist Emily Lanier.  There are some new faces in April, including upcoming Thursday dinner sets from the Norm Wolfe/Peter Concilio duo, and Draa Hobbs with sax player Michael Zsoldos.

Saturday:  George’s Back Pocket, Boccelli’s on the Canal – Listening to Rutland singer/guitarist George “G.V.” Nostrand’s music on his web site, I’m reminded of bluegrass skiffle bands like Dan Hicks and the Hot Licks or Asleep at the Wheel.  Nostrand played and recorded a well-received set at the Windham before it closed last year.   Tonight, he’s at Bellows Falls’ newest music venue.

Sunday: Green Mountain Shuffle, Middle Earth Music Hall – Since we’re discussing indie films, it’s worth mentioning the first movie from Vermont musician and writer Michael T. Hahn, which gets a 2 PM screening today.  Starring Heather Fitch, Adam Desautels and Derek Campbell, “Green Mountain Shuffle” is described as “an unforgettable tale of passion, deceit and redemption.”  It also features performances by Hahn’s eponymous band.

Tuesday: Taylor Hicks/Toby Lightman, Avalon (Boston) – As the current “American Idol” circus lurches through another season, last year’s winner proves there’s no guarantee of success beyond the title.  He’s no Carrie Underwood in the record sales department, and the Avalon isn’t the EnormoDome either.  The best thing about this show is Toby Lightman, the Philly chanteuse who could have been an Idol if she’d wanted to.

Wednesday: Lunasa, Chandler Music Hall – Randolph, Vermont’s jewel of an opera house was born from, of all things, a church merger in 1907.  Renovated in the 1970s, it’s hosted both local and international talent. Tonight, it’s a fine Celtic band, rich in tradition but with state of the art playing skills.  It features members of the Waterboys, Donal Lunny’s Coolfin and the Riverdance band.

Toby Lightman Shines At Iron Horse

lightmansmall.jpgMost of the crowd at the Iron Horse Tuesday felt that if Toby Lightman had auditioned for “American Idol” back in 2002, Kelly Clarkson would still be hawking Red Bull and waiting tables in Texas.

But the singer-songwriter, who released her first record in 2004 (“Little Things”), has chosen a more methodical path to success. Her sophomore disc, “Bird On A Wire,” came out last July. Lightman says her focus now is “definitely different – I know a lot more than I did before. My approach this time was to do a lot more grassroots touring, I didn’t really do that the first time around.”

Wearing a black Doors T-shirt and accompanied by guitarist Court Clement, Lightman played stripped-down selections from “Little Things” and “Bird on a Wire” during a Tuesday night show which exhibited the many elements that inform her sound. She added improvisational jazz touches to the bridge of set opener “Alone” and laid down a funky groove for “Coming Back In.”

Lightman transformed the syncopated album version of “Slipping” into a spare, sultry rhythm that would have done Norah Jones proud. “I do a lot of angry songs,” she joked by way of introducing the sweet and hopeful “Better,” a song she wrote for her sister upon the birth of her son.

But the growling “River” showed Toby Lightman at her righteously indignant best. “The lights are dim, are you gonna come crying to me?” she sang, deftly trading licks with Clement (a seasoned sideman who has worked with Griffin House and Jessica Lofbomm).

The guitarist’s inclusion definitely helped to spice up the show. Lightman covered Jim Croce’s “Operator” a few years back; she and Clement worked up a version of it in the dressing room prior to the show that was among the most well-received numbers of the night. The song oozed soul, as Lightman came back around at the end for another go at the chorus that took the 70’s soft-rock classic to new heights. If Donnie Hathaway had ever gotten his hands on it, it would have sounded like this.

Between her first and second records, Lightman said backstage before the show, “I’d drifted from pop to more classic soul. I was really enraptured by the organic nature and space of people like Bill Withers and Sly and the Family Stone. There doesn’t need to be so much going on, there’s just a vibe and it’s a great song. You don’t need the tracks.”

The shift to a leaner sound began during the “Little Things” tour, says Lightman. “There’s a lot of programming on the record that was really hard to replicate live.”

Last year, she headed back to the studio with Bill Bottrell and Patrick Leonard (Sheryl Crow, Madonna, Elton John) for “Bird on a Wire.” “This one was very different that the first one,” Lightman says. “Everything was done with live takes. I had never really done that before, but I’m a lot more confident in my voice and playing my guitar.”

That confidence comes across clearly onstage, despite Lightman’s occasional self-deprecating remark. “We suck!” she exclaimed at one point as she fiddled with a guitar tuning. But tunes like “Overflowing,” Holding Me Down” and the forthcoming single “My Sweet Song” gave the lie to such musings. Lightman closed her set with the Ella Fitzgerald-inspired “Sleigh Ride” – another number worked up pre-show – and sent the crowd happily into the night to spread the word about her steadily rising star.

Local Rhythms – Middle Earth’s Dark Days Ending

chrisjonessml.jpgFive months filled with lawsuits and countersuits, delayed court dates and mounting attorney bills haven’t made Chris Jones an optimist. But the Middle Earth Music Hall owner was buoyant enough last Monday to declare that “jackhammer season is over” for the Bradford club.

The reason for his cautious jubilation was an Orange County District Court decision handing Shiloh’s Restaurant back to landlord Vincent Pacilio for non-payment of rent. For the time being, Jones can concentrate on what he does best – bringing great music to the basement establishment he’s run for the past five years.

“We’re not done,” say Jones. “I expect a suit for failure of the business,” a prospect that mostly upsets him because “it will hurt the landlord.” But, he says, “the threat of an injunction to shut us down is off the table.”

This battle may be won, but because Shiloh’s owners have ten days to file an appeal, Jones is reluctant to declare an end to the war. So the legal defense fundraisers and the milk cans by the bar filled with dollar bills will be around a while longer.

“I don’t believe it’s over, and the best defense is a good offense,” Jones says.

The good news for music fans is that the court victory has cleared the way for Middle Earth to firm up several tentative dates. The coming months will welcome performances from Rani Arbo and Daisy Mayhem, Cheryl Wheeler, banjo master Tony Trischka, Garnet Rogers and Chris Smither. With the legal cloud hanging over them, Jones couldn’t afford to commit to shows as far out as May (Arbo).

He remains wary of Victory in Jesus Ministries, and their leader, whom Jones cites as the primary force behind the suit. “Knowing (David) Lund, he’ll appeal,” he says, adding “if you give him a crack, no matter how small, he’ll stick his foot in it.”

Overall, his outlook’s good. “In the long run, we’ll come out on top,” says Jones. “But it’s time-consuming, and expensive. I just got the bill today.”

He’s most heartened by the support he’s received from the music community. Bands like Amity Front, Boston’s Session Americana and Nobby Reed all performed to raise much-needed cash.

“But the publicity has been priceless,” Jones says. “I’ve seen a lot of new faces in here over the past few months.”

What priceless toe-tapping experiences await music fans this weekend?

Thursday: Harvey Reid, Four Corners Grille – Missing from the area music scene this fall, the Flying Goose Music series is, according to the restaurant’s website, a one-night affair this year. Lucy Kaplansky, however, is advertising a show there next month. Reid is an acoustic guitar master, and along with wife Joyce Andersen, he made a great Christmas record last year. He and Andersen perform selections from it tonight.

Friday: Junk in the Trunk, Salt Hill Pub – Richie Cortese has been an Upper Valley fixture for a long time now, and his latest combo was quite well received when they played outdoors at Sunapee in the summer. This is the first Salt Hill appearance for Junk in the Trunk, which plays classic rock and boogie driven by Cortese’s singing, which can bend the treetops.

Saturday: Yer Mother’s Onion, Seven Barrels – I caught these guys at a pretty crazy party recently, just across the Unity line. Everyone was in costume, and let’s just say I’m impressed with the depth and breadth of the subculture in these parts. I’m also impressed by this band, who play a few originals, but can also knock out powerful covers by everyone from Carlos Santana to Cake – check out their take of “Building A Religion.”

Monday: Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, NBC – This is a well-written drama, not a musical performance show. If you’re all about music and nothing else, you can wait until the last 10 minutes of the episode to watch a superlative performance by a band of New Orleans horn players led by 20-year old Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews. Their version of “O Holy Night” has replaced “Little Saint Nick” as my favorite Christmas song.

Tuesday: Toby Lightman, Iron Horse – One of the reasons I think the Grammies are a joke is that Mariah Carey is still getting nominations, and truly soulful singers like Lightman are overlooked. She’s made two excellent records, the most recent of which, “Bird on a Wire,” runs the gamut from charged up gospel to passionate torch songs. Her time will come, and when it does, Grammy will probably pick the wrong album to honor.

Wednesday: Carlos Ocasio, Canoe Club – Frontman for Gusano and other area bands, Carlos stretches out at Canoe, playing restrained, intelligent blues and showing off his elegant guitar style. As always, get a seat near to the stage if you want to listen closely.

Toby Lightman – Bird on a Wire

lightmanbirdonawire.jpgA Review

Lightman’s follow-up to her intriguing 2004 debut, “Little Things,” is just as soulful but gratefully less adorned. That’s a good thing, because the honest texture of the loping, Ray Charles rhythm of “My Sweet Song” and the restrained yet powerful “One Sure Thing” exude the self-assurance missing from, say, Nelly Furtado’s latest or one of Kelly Clarkson’s many near misses.

At the same time, she can tear into a funky groove with equal passion and conviction. A thumping bass line dominates “Holding Me Down,” a rocking track that’s also the record’s first single.

“Don’t Let Go” is an empowered woman’s song, with lines like “I’m gon’ tell you when it’s over/but it’s not over yet” and “I’m sick of hearing your voice” emphasizing the “takes no prisoners” mood present over much of “Bird on a Wire.”

“Alone,” despite overly simple words (“Alone isn’t how I think of me/I’m waiting for the day/when I can put that word away”), explores Lightman’s vulnerable side. There are two versions, the official hard rocking one, and a stripped, slowed down “bonus track” take that’s much more heartfelt and engaging.

“Don’t Wake Me,” the record’s leadoff track, begins with a gospel choir, and then kicks into a Memphis groove with a spine-tingling call-and-response chorus. Another winner is “Round & Round,” a Little Feat meets Betty Carter gumbo that could make a dead man sway.

This energy is present throughout “Bird on a Wire,” even on spare ballads like “Good Find.” “You’re the thought that clears my head,” the sultry Lightman sings, soaring over a perfectly uncluttered arrangement. It’s the high point in a record with many.

“Bird on a Wire” is a solid sophomore effort from a rising star.
(4 out of 5 stars)