Local Rhythms – Folk Scene Gets A Nice Boost

singout19711Well-rounded though the area music scene may be, there’s a dearth of places hosting singer-songwriters.

A lot of local venues seem to exist between two extremes.

On the one hand, there’s quiet jazz, a perfect background soundtrack for dinner conversation; on the other, blues and rock, typically delivered after 9:00 PM to energetic crowds – designed to stoke thirsts and fill dance floors.

Not that I’m complaining, but having spent my Wonder Bread years listening to Jackson Browne, Carole King and James Taylor, there’s nothing more exhilarating to me than witnessing an artist who can quiet a room with nothing more than their voice, a guitar and the thoughts in their head.

“Pour your simple sorrow to the sound hole and your knee,” wrote Joni Mitchell.  Through some kind of alchemy, these private thoughts become universal emotions.

It’s magic.

With that in mind, I welcome the arrival of a weekly acoustic music series at Tuckerbox Café in White River Junction.

Singer-songwriters perform every Friday night from 6 to 8 PM; there’s a rotation of five performers.  It’s the brainchild of Norwich folksinger Phil Singer.

The location, which opened last June, “has a real lively folk vibe,” enthuses Singer.  ”The overstuffed leather couches and chairs remind me of the Ohio coffeehouses I used to play back in the day.”

Featured performers include Marianna McKim, who performs this week with a player to be named later, musical curator Ford Daley and his partner Elaine Gifford, area mainstay Betsy Stewart, folksinger Cindy Geilich, and Singer & Jordan, Phil’s duo with Laurianne Jordan.

The latte and scones operation is an offshoot of Tip Top Café, and is located just down the street from the American bistro-styled restaurant at 1 South Main Street – right in the heart of the vibrant WRJ arts scene.

It’s a classic “door closes, window opens” scenario, considering Elixir’s closing last month.

Singer attempted to organize a similar effort for a few months last year, trucking in coffee and snacks to the Hotel Coolidge, but the chemistry wasn’t right.

Undeterred, he and his friends kept making music while they waited for another opportunity.

“Up to now, we’ve been meeting in one another’s houses because of the scarcity of venues for acoustic music,” he says.

But the times, they are a-changing … for the better.

What else is happening?

Thursday: John Gorka, Four Corners Grille – Gorka writes literate songs, rooted in place and time.  “Houses In The Field” looks at the costs of progress; on “Bottles Break” he crawls inside the mind of a local denizen who wants nothing more than “to buy this town and keep it rough.”  “Mean Streak” would have been a smash hit if John Mellencamp recorded it. I could go on, but you should see him and get it for yourself.

Friday: High Ground Band, Electra – These country rockers have a big following at area clubs like Shenanigans and KJ’s (where they perform next Friday). They’re also a charitable bunch – for the second year in a row, High Ground will perform their original song,  “David’s House,” during their opening set at that organization’s annual benefit (Lebanon Opera House, December 3) – Mark Wills is headlining.

Saturday: Pete Merrigan, Seven Barrel Brewery – I know, I frequently pick this man’s shows. What can I say? I’m a fan.  But this is the first time in my memory that he’s performed at this wonderful West Lebanon brew pub, which I still love even though I can’t have a cigar there any more.  Pete’s a permanent resident now, though he’s sneaking down to Tampa/St. Petersburg in early December for a couple of shows.

Sunday: Jeremy Milligan Quintet, Hooker-Dunham – This group plays moody, hard to pin down jazz influenced by Bela Fleck, Tin Hat Trio and other iconoclasts.  Which is perfect for this smallish Brattleboro performance space, which routinely welcomes left of center talent.  His songs (streaming on Milligan’s MySpace page) insinuate themselves, lurking in the background until some clever interplay between clarinet, accordion and guitar pokes above the surface.

Tuesday: The Blasters, Iron Horse – In the 1980’s this rocking combo was equally at home sharing the bill with Black Flag or Queen.  They specialize in uncompromising, high-energy roadhouse music.  Bands like the Fabulous Thunderbirds and Los Lobos found success with this sound, while the Blasters stayed a bit under the radar – though not for lack of talent

Wednesday: Duane Carleton, Center Street Saloon – This singer/songwriter plays upwards of 300 gigs a year in and around northern Vermont, including weekly appearances at this Rutland pub.  He reminds me of John Mellencamp, with energetic songs about working class concerns.  I’d love to see him play a bit closer to the Upper Valley, but for now, this is as close as he gets.

Finally, for retirees & swing-shifters – The Claremont Middle School hosts a free performance by multi-instrumentalist and world music authority Randy Armstrong

Local Rhythms – Youth Cafe Helps WRJ Teens

As the country tacks toward November 4, certain politicians are pushing the idea of a small town “real America”.

There, they say, work is done, values upheld, and patriotism percolates like coffee – in a real pot, not one of those funny cappuccino machines.

But no one is talking about how crushingly dull life can be for the kids who live in these little villages, let alone doing anything about it.

For some of them, high school can be an especially cruel time.

That’s what makes the story of Youth Managed Café, a project spearheaded by adults and run by teenagers in White River Junction, so inspiring.

“The teen population, particularly in rural areas, is one that’s sort of undervalued,” says Kim Souza.  She runs Revolution, a clothing store, espresso bar and semi-official headquarters of the project, known to its members simply as “Youth Café.”

“Engaging activities are few and far between, especially for those who are into music and arts and not academics, sports and theatre,” says Souza.

“They just end up being fringe kids, they get swept aside and no one tries to make them a vital part of the community.  I know I felt that growing up.”

Since its inception in 2003, Youth Café has been a “moving party,” holding events wherever they’re welcome – AVA Gallery, Upper Valley Events Center and, this weekend, at Whaleback Ski Area.

Friday, they’ll host a fundraiser costume ball featuring the Jonee Earthquake Band, a punk outfit that’s a long time supporter of the effort.

“They even drove from Manchester in a blizzard once to play for us,” says Rachel Williams, who joined Youth Café in 2004, when she was a sophomore at Hartford High School.

These days, Rachel serves as an adult leader of the group, which fits nicely with her goal of becoming a health teacher.

The local music scene is very intertwined with Youth Café, says Williams.  Bands have formed around friendships struck at their events, like Bleach and Kamikaze Hippies, two groups that joined Upper Valley and Claremont musicians together.

“We’re ready to take it to next level,” says Williams.  To that end, paperwork establishing Youth Managed Café as a 503c nonprofit is in motion.  They hope to find a permanent home in downtown White River Junction.

Friday’s show also features homegrown talents Strike Force, Lilum, Short Term Memory and Grand Marshall – plus a possible mystery guest.

“We make our own fun,” Rachel says.  That’s an admirable goal.

What else is happening?

Thursday: Billy Bragg, Lebanon Opera House – I usually think of Billy Bragg as a topical singer, famously known as a “one man Clash.”  But I was surprised recently to hear his tender version of the Four Tops’ “Walk Away Renee” – a monologue about a failed romance with a girl who shared the song’s name.  It’s a beautiful piece of work, and totally absent of any of the original song’s lyrics.  The Watson Sisters, who added luster to Jenny Lewis’s “Rabbit Fur Coat,” open the show.

Friday: Rap the Vote, Electra – Local hip-hop factory Bread Truck/Open Case tops the bill at this show, which includes voter registration and several other performers.  Until rapper Arthur Rafus set me straight, I wasn’t aware that there are a lot of fans and practitioners of the genre in the Upper Valley.  I’ve heard some of BT/OC’s rhymes; they remind me of Public Enemy – but I’m no authority, there are probably better comparisons.

Saturday: Paingivers Ball, Claremont Moose – A benefit (second annual) for local food pantries, so if you bring a non-perishable item, tickets cost just $7.  The show features hard edged bands like R.A.K., Fall Line and Soul Octane Burner, as well as Roadhouse, a rocking combo that impressed me last week at Imperial (and who share a lead guitarist with S.O.B.).  This is a costume ball, featuring door prizes and raffles, put on by Rick’s Tattoo of Newport.  Good cause, good times!

Sunday: Richard Thompson, Latchis Theatre – Folk music’s gold standard returns to Vermont.  He’s written so many great songs over the years, going back to Fairport Convention.  Many of them have been covered by the likes of Elvis Costello, Graham Nash, X and Bonnie Raitt, whose “Dimming of the Day” is a favorite.  It’s a tossup, though, as to whether Thompson’s more renowned for his songwriting or guitar playing skills.

Tuesday: Spaghetti Western Orchestra, Spaulding Auditorium – A bit of whimsy at the HOP, which has a pretty good lineup this year.  SWO has fun with movie music, specifically the early 60’s films that launched Clint Eastwood’s career (before he became an auteur).  Their version of “Good, Bad and the Ugly” is priceless.

Wednesday: Los Straightjackets, Iron Horse – The hit of last summer’s Green River Festival, three guitarists performing in Mexican wrestling masks, playing surf guitar music a la the Ventures.  Cowabunga!

Elixir’s Last Night – Maybe

Elixir, an inventive dining destination in White River Junction that featured live music five nights a week, closed its doors Saturday with a final show.

Harmonica player Johnny Bishop and guitarist Ed Eastridge, working as a pared-down version of “Johnny B. and the Goodes,” played an evening of blues.   Billy Rosen joined them midway, adding some jazzy flair to the duo’s material.  Musical highlights included a funky version of “Tequila,” complete with audience participation, and an ethereal cover of the Beatles’ “Come Together,” featuring Rosen’s inventive guitar improvisations.

Bishop also played every track from his recently released “Have Mercy,” a CD he said was getting major airplay in, of all places, Poland.  It’s also big in Macedonia, he said, proving that music speaks every language.

Tim Utt and Barbara Blaisdell, who’ve performed at the club several times as “Sensible Soul,” a duo version of their band “Sensible Shoes,” sat at a table in the back of the restaurant took it all in.

“We were going to play here on Halloween,” Blaisdell said sadly, lamenting the end of one of the Upper Valley’s most consistent music clubs.  “It’s a real loss.”

Owner Mike Davidson said the difficult decision to close Elixir was a personal one.  “With several other businesses and two young children, it doesn’t work for us as a family to run a restaurant,” Davidson said in an email sent just one day before the restaurant’s final night.

Elixir’s closing leaves a big hole in the local music scene, not to mention the end of a clever food menu that featured the best pomme frites – OK, French Fries – anywhere in the area.  But the mood Saturday, at least around 9-10 o’clock, wasn’t one typically found at the end of an era.

It felt more like an interlude, a transition.  Perhaps it’s because Mike Davidson isn’t closing due to failing business.

“Ironically, the numbers recently have been encouraging,” he said in his email, “but I know the time required to get it over the hump, and we don’t have that time without sacrificing precious family time.”

By 8 o’clock Saturday, several small plates items on the menu were no longer available; a couple of beer kegs were tapped dry, and wine was being delivered in martini glasses.  That was the plan, said Davidson – use up all the supplies, then lock up.

“But I’m not taking anything down,” he said, as he sipped a martini on Elixir’s Freight House porch. “I’m going to leave everything the way it is for awhile.”

He’s holding out hope that a buyer can be found.

Davidson said there were a “few parties” who’d expressed interest in taking over the restaurant, but declined to name them.

“It has been truly enjoyable and I will miss the musicians most,” Davidson said in his parting email.  But with any luck, the parting will be short-lived.

In an email Tuesday, Davidson wrote, “It’s still in play…optimistic!”

Bummer – Elixir to Close October 18

From Elixir owner Mike Davidson comes word that White River Junction’s home for music and awesome fries will be no longer as of this Saturday.  Here’s the text of an email sent to Toni Ballard, Billy Rosen, Fred Haas & Sabrina Brown, and David Westphalen, all fine musicians who played regularly at the club, which featured live talent 5 nights a week, sometimes more:


It is with sadness that I am writing to tell you that we are closing ELIXIR. With several other businesses and two young children, it doesn’t work for us as a family to run a restaurant. Ironically, the numbers recently have been encouraging, but I know the time required to get it over the hump and we don’t have that time without sacrificing precious family time . I am seeking another buyer or lessor and hope to have someone continue what we have started.It can be a successful business for the right individual, but my priority right now is my family.

That said, I want to sincerely thank all of you for the time, energy and heart you put into making ELIXIR more than a business. For me, it has been a great learning experience and a window into a special community of artists who are passionate about their craft. It has been truly enjoyable and I will miss the musicians most.

Thank you again for all the heart and soul you put into this endeavor.


Mike and Rachel

PS Please come down late on Saturday for our farewell night and bring your friends, we intend to celebrate!


Mike created a wonderful blend of New York hip and upcountry casual in his club that will be tough to replace.

James Montgomery – A Musician’s Musician’s Musician

The River City Blues Festival in White River Junction culminates Saturday with a performance by the James Montgomery Blues Band.  The W.C. Handy award-nominated harmonica player will play an outdoor show featuring songs from his soon to be released album, along with selections from “Delta Rising,” the blues documentary he worked on with Morgan Freeman.

It’s been a few years since Montgomery’s been to the area. “We’re really looking forward to it,” he says.  “At one point that was a huge stopping point for us, we really can’t wait to get up there and see some of our old fans.”

“We’re having a ball right now and we want to show the crowd how much fun we’re having.”

The singer/harp player is music’s ultimate go-to guy.  Over a career that began in Detroit and Boston in the early 70’s, he’s shared the stage with everyone from Steven Tyler to Muddy Waters.  He’s worked with James Cotton, the legendary harp player who treats Montgomery like a son (“I call him “Dad”), and most recently toured with Johnny Winter’s band.

He is, to use a bit of a tongue twister, a musician’s musician’s musician, as this story illustrates:

“I was playing with Johnny in Europe,” recalls Montgomery.  “Just before we go on Robert Plant (of Led Zeppelin) comes over and he gets down on his knees in front of Johnny and is paying homage.  He says ‘Johnny, without you all my music would have been different’ and ‘you’re the guy’ and ‘I’m so proud to meet you you’re one of my idols’.”

He also tells a story story of watching Eddie Van Halen try to locate a napkin for Winter to sign at the L.A. House of Blues, while fending off his own autograph-seeking fans.

As to how it feels to be the guy who’s asked to play with such icons, Montgomery is self-effacing.

“When you’re really playing … it isn’t you who’s playing the music anyway.  Your job as a musician it to try and lose yourself as much as possible and just let this energy and this music kind of transport you and the audience.”

“You can’t take it too personally because it’s not you up there,” he continues.  “If it’s you, then you miss out on a lot of it.  You have to let yourself go. “

His skills have earned him stints as a Jim Belushi-era Blues Brother, won him a gold record for his contribution to Uncle Kracker’s Kid Rock-produced “Double Wide” CD, and led to more benefit show band leader roles and concert cameo appearances than he can count.

In the early days Montgomery learned his moves from the best players in his hometown, guys like James Cotton and Junior Wells  “I had the opportunity to play with John Lee Hooker when I was 19.  Those guys were pretty accessible back then, they would show you how to do stuff.”

“When I started my first band I hired the best guys in East Detroit, because I figured no one was gonna pay to see a harmonica player,” he says.  “So one of the great things that I learned how to do, especially from Cotton, was to get up on the fly and just lead a band.”

He’s helmed a few all-star affairs since then, including a 2005 Vermont State Troopers benefit at Killington’s Pickle Barrel with G.E. Smith, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, Johnny A. and members of Boston.  The musicians he’s sat in with trust his instincts – sometimes, it seems, almost too much.  One night, one of the greatest blues guitarists in the world simply took a mid-set break and handed things off to James.

“I’m sitting there with B.B. King’s band on a live broadcast with a horn section,” Montgomery recalls.  “I had like three seconds to count off a tune and keep the show going and lead the band.”

It’s a long way from his younger days.  Montgomery left Detroit to attend Boston University.   When Phil Walden of Capricorn Records heard him, he offered James a contract and a slot opening for the Allman Brothers Band.

“It was teach at BU for 17 thousand a year, or tour with the Allman Brothers,” says Montgomery – not a hard choice.

“When I was a kid growing up I was in a jug band, and I made a washtub bass, and I’d play in the basement with this harmonica rack that I made from my father’s model railroad thing.”

He’d listen to Jimmy Reed records (“he was easy to play along”) and think about his heroes – “the Stones and the Beatles, and more importantly for me, Muddy and B.B. and John Lee and Cotton,” says Montgomery, “and it’s gratifying to look back.”

“I mean, I spent New Year’s Eve with Mick Jagger, and had a great time singing with him.   We just sang Muddy Waters songs together for a couple of hours. I hung with George Harrison for a couple of days. I ended up meeting one of the Beatles and one of the Stones.  I ended up playing a lot with B.B. King and John Lee, and once with Muddy Waters – only once but it was the thrill of my life.”

“So,” he continues, “a lot of the things that I used to dream about when I was just getting started – a lot of those things have happened.”

River City Blues Fest Schedule:

Elixir (all shows free):

Tuesday, July 8 – Ricker Winsor (7-10 PM)
Wednesday, July 9 – Kurtis Kinger (7-10 PM)
Thursday, July 10 – Samirah Evans (7-10 PM)
Friday, July 11 – Dr. Michael Payton Blues Band (8-11 PM)
Saturday, July 12 – Johnny B. and the Goodes @ Elixir (8-11 PM)

Outdoors at Freight House ($10/advance, $12/door):

Saturday, July 12 – James Montgomery, Killborn Alley Blues Band (2:30-7 PM)