Chuck Wicks @ Claremont Opera House 19 March 2009

wicksCountry is music’s last meritocracy, a genre where, as John Mellencamp wrote recently in Huffington Post, “stars [come] from seemingly nowhere to grow to tremendous popularity; think Garth Brooks.”

Or think Chuck Wicks, who thrilled a sold-out Claremont Opera House last Thursday with a blend of heart-tugging ballads and straight up rockers.  The lanky singer-songwriter rose through the ranks on Nashville’s Music Row, parking cars while he honed his skills next to some of country’s best writer, all the while awaiting his chance to make his first record.

Thursday night, Wicks played most of that debut disc (“Starting Now”), a few well-chosen (and crowd pleasing) covers, and some promising new songs.

At the outset, however, the challenge of shifting gears from “Dancing With the Stars” to music showed.  While he got reacquainted with band mates he hadn’t seen in a few weeks, the show’s opening song, “All I Ever Wanted,” didn’t hit on all cylinders.

But it was smooth sailing from there, as Wicks found his groove on a churning breakup song (“The Easy Part”) and the uplifting “If We Loved.”

By the night’s first ballad – “Man of the House,” dancing was the last thing on Wicks’ mind.  However, he did oblige the crowd with a with a solo salsa figure eight.  His hip swaying delighted  several screaming fans.

Introducing a new song, the bawdy “Better on the Floor,” Wicks slyly encouraged the audience to sing along, or “come on down to the front and dance.”  This precipitated a stage rush that had a few Opera House board members covering their eyes.

No one else minded, though, and the mostly female throng at the foot of the stage fed Wicks’ energy on the rocking “Leave Me Alone” and a surprising cover of Maroon 5’s “She Will Be Loved.”

A solo acoustic mini-set featured the new “You Won’t Let Me,” written with girlfriend and dancing partner Julianne Hough, and the soulful “Mine All Mine.”

Wicks’ five-piece band rejoined him for back-to-back covers of Brad Paisley’s “Wrapped Around” and Joe Diffie’s “Pickup Man.”  The singer took time out to thank Paisley for his support, noting that the singer brought Wicks on his 2008 tour, and wrote early letters on his behalf to country radio stations.

After that tribute, Wicks pleased the crowd by played his biggest hit.   The choice of a Paisley cover fueled speculation about Wicks’ future with his dancer girlfriend, and his introduction to his biggest hit to date added to it.

“I don’t know nothing about stealing Cinderella,” he said, “but I’m trying,” – a subtle reference to the 20-year old Hough.  He followed with a power ballad, “What If You Stay,” and closed the night with back to back rockers – “I Feel a Good Time Comin’ On” and “She’s Gonna Hurt Somebody.”

Wicks’ humility matches his resume.  He was late for a pre-show meet and greet because “my mama taught me to never go out in public without a cleanly pressed shirt.”  It was pretty clear who held the iron.

Flying a redeye out of LA the night before didn’t deter Wicks from wading into a crowd of post-show fans at his merchandise table.  If this kind of fan-centric energy were more common in John Mellencamp’s circle, the business might be in better shape.

The show’s success was a testament to the efforts of local radio station KIXX-FM.  Their morning team of Traci and Paul was instrumental in spotting Wicks’ talent well before his dancing prowess was known,

Manager/promoter Jim Roach booked the rising country star right on the cusp of fame.  As good as the music was Thursday, without such behind the scenes magic, the show never would have happened.

It’ was also clear from the sold-out show that country music is a strong area draw.  More shows like this one are just what the Opera House needs.

Newport Folk & Jazz Festivals Returning to Their Roots?

picture-28Though last year’s Newport Folk Festival was quite successful by recent standards, producer Festival Productions still owed Rhode Island money in  January.  Because of this, the state’s Department of Environmental Management voided their contract to produce the festivals at Fort Adams State Park.

Yesterday, original founder George Wein announced plans to produce the shows himself, launching a web site and conducting interviews with the Boston Globe, New York Times (free subscription required)  and Providence Journal:

“I couldn’t let the festivals die,” the 83-year-old impresario said yesterday from his home in New York. “That’s my life, those two festivals.”

Wein said Environmental Management, which operates Fort Adams State Park in Newport, granted his request to negotiate a contract to produce the festivals. His production team has said it will be holding the folk festival July 31-Aug. 2 and the jazz festival Aug. 7-9 at Fort Adams State Park.

With the Folk Festival’s 50th anniversary coming up this year, it’s worth speculating that the show might return to its folk roots – hopefully, the Black Crowes will stay away.

Mellencamp – Blame It On SoundScan

picture-261Writing in Huffington Post, John Mellencamp says that the music business’s problems began long before Napster.  Relying on Soundscan store reporting and BDS per-play radio reporting changed the game, he says, “from one that measured popularity to one that was driven by population” :

Record companies soon discovered that because of BDS, they only needed to concentrate on about 12 radio stations; there was no longer a business rationale for working secondary markets that were soon forgotten — despite the fact that these were the very places where rock and roll was born and thrived.

Combine that with songs midwifed by corporate boards focused on maximizing shareholder value. and art suffered:

Early in my career, I wrote and recorded a song called “I Need A Lover” that was only played on just one radio station in Washington, DC the first week it came out. Through much work from local radio reps at the record company, the song ended up on thousands of radio stations. Sing the chorus of “I Need A Lover.” It’s not the best song I ever wrote nor did it achieve more than much more than being a mid-chart hit, but nevertheless, you can sing that chorus. Now sing the chorus of even one Mariah Carey song. Nothing against Mariah, she’s a brilliantly gifted vocalist, but the point here is the way that the songs were built — mine from the ground up, hers from the top down.

One genre didn’t become a casualty, though, says Mellencamp:

During the time of the upheaval wrought by SoundScan, BDS and the “Wall Streeting” of the industry, country music seized the opportunity and tacitly claimed the traditional music business. Country has come to dominate the heartland of America, a landscape abandoned or ignored by the gatekeepers of rock and pop. Great new country music stars came from seemingly nowhere to grow to tremendous popularity; think Garth Brooks.

Mellencamp covers the other usual suspects – the CD as a greed engine, Napster’s ascent, and the present day sad state of the biz, where, sadly, “it’s really a matter of “every man for himself.” In terms of possibilities, we are but an echo of what we once were.”

This means more artists are also responsible for marketing themselves and seizing every opportunity that makes sense in a world of slimmer and slimmer pickings.  Once upon a time, this was the job of A&R folks at record companies.  Mellencamp takes a not-so-subtle swipe at gadflies like Bob Lefsetz, who fragged Mellencamp awhile back both for his alliance with Chevrolet, and for looking too young on the cover of his last album:

I’ve always found it amusing that a few people who have never made a record or written a song seem to know so much more about what an artist should be doing than the artist himself. If these pundits know so much, I’d suggest that make their own records and just leave us out of it.

It should be noted that this reprises Mellencamp’s earlier judicious dispatch of Lefsetz’s comments.

Read the whole thing here.

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)

Local Rhythms – Boycott Ticketmaster

ticketmasternoYou’ve been dying to see Bon Jovi since your big hair days, and he’s going on a summer tour.  No matter what it costs, you’re determined to be there.

With a posse of laptop-wielding friends, watches synched to the atomic clock, you count down the seconds to on-sale.

A few frantic mouse-clicks after the opening bell, it’s all over.  Nada, zilch, zero – every seat’s vanished in the blink of an eye.

Dejectedly, you click on the “TicketExchange” link proffered by the ever-helpful folks at Ticketmaster.  Fan-to-fan sales, it says.  Maybe someone luckier than you bought more than they needed.

Lo and behold, there are hundreds of good tickets, marked up three to four times face value, for the just sold-out show.

Guess who’s selling them?

A story in last Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal said that TicketExchange “only rarely list[s] tickets offered by fans.”   Most legal scalping, wrote Ethan Smith, “is done by the artists and their promoters with the cooperation of Ticketmaster.”

It’s the music business’s dirty little secret.

The seats, reports Smith, are “offered in small batches, each at a price, such as $1,164.01, that mimics prices set via online auctions.”

In other words, these rock stars pretend to be fans so they can screw real fans.

All’s fair in fair market value – I’m no communist.  However, selling a platinum seat, bundled with VIP parking and a backstage meet and greet is one thing – this kind of deception is just plain sleazy.

Along with Bon Jovi, Neil Diamond, Van Halen, Celine Dion and the Elton John/Billy Joel tour were called out for the practice.  All failed to reply to requests for comment – big surprise.  No doubt there are others.

Ticketmaster also removed the “tickets posted by fans” message from the TicketExchange site after the story broke.

This practice works because most people hate Ticketmaster, and reflexively blame them for ridiculous prices.  The real malefactors are perfectly happy to let the Evil Empire take the heat for their avarice.

Though they’re not as guilty as, say, a gray-bearded Eddie Van Halen, none of this would be possible without Ticketmaster.  For my part, I am boycotting all of their events until they divest from TicketExchange and TicketsNow (their other scalping site).

Since I live in the Upper Valley, it’s easier.  Higher Ground, Iron Horse and Meadowbrook each run their own ticketing; all have great shows ahead (I’ll miss Hampton Beach Casino, though).  Speaking of upcoming and untainted:

Thursday: Chuck Wicks, Claremont Opera House – I predict that a few years from now, fans lucky enough to attend this rising country music star’s Opera House performance will be bragging to those who weren’t.  Wicks is the whole package – charming, talented and possessed of a widely varied catalog of songs, from straight up rockers to heart-tugging ballads like “Stealing Cinderella,” his biggest hit so far. Don’t miss this (at press time, it’s close to sold out).

Friday: Nightingale, West Lebanon Congregational Church – Jeremiah McLane, who plays accordion in this wonderful traditional trio, is a regular habitué of Salt hill’s weekly Irish sessions. Nightingale know their way around a jig, and they can lead a fine contra dance too.  For a flavor of what they sound like, check out Yellow House Media.  Tonight’s performance benefits the fine work done at Upper Valley Music Center (see Sunday).

Saturday: You Decide, Three Choices – Oh, I can’t make up my mind!  Tonight, there’s a salsa dance party led by DJ Spin Doctor at Norwich’s Tracy Hall.  At the Hopkins Center’s Top of the Hop, Dr. Burma play the Mud Ball, delayed from Christmas.  Finally, Canoe Club presents Sensible Shoes in an after-hours dance party, likely featuring students from Barb Blaisdell’s Hanover High songwriting class.

Sunday: UV Music Center Faculty Concert, Damon Hall – The aforementioned UVMC holds a faculty rehearsal in Hartford, with performances from Peter Concilio, Norm Wolfe, Pierre Fornier, Jane Helms, Dave Wysocki, Judy Wild, Joanna Nelson, Jennifer Hansen, Bill Ghezzie and Margaret Gilmore and others.  This will be a wonderful showcase for a very eclectic musical resource.  Learn more at http://www.uvmusic.org.

Tuesday: Calico Winds, Colby-Sawyer College – Serious music can be seriously fun, particularly in the hands of this clever quintet.  They play wind chamber music with a twist, “many musical styles, incorporating a creative approach to standard literature with an exploration of trendy and nontraditional works,” according to their press release.  One critic praised their “mingling of European classical music with American roots music” – what an intriguing blend!

Wednesday: Billy Rosen, Canoe Club – One of my favorite “soft touch” guitarists goes solo in Hanover (he’s backing Emily Lanier at WRJ’s Tip Top Café Tuesday), playing selections from the Great American Songbook, and channeling greats like Wes Montgomery, George Benson and Kenny Burrell.  There’s always great music to accompany a tasty meal at CC – 363 days a year.

Chuck Wicks Keeps Things Cool

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Chuck Wicks
Claremont Opera House
Thursday, March 19, 2009
Tickets – $20.00

7:30 PM – Order Tickets

Though he’s out straight juggling gigs and learning to dance on national television, Chuck Wicks is in a breezy mood.

“My songwriting buddies are coming out to L.A,” says the rising country star, who has two hit singles, a top 10 album, and a new song heading up the charts.

At the moment, though, his mind is on fancy footwork.

During the first week of “Dancing With The Stars,” he and girlfriend Julianne Hough waltzed their way into the middle of the pack.  The couple is practicing hard for the second round, which starts Monday, with an elimination vote on March 17.

Hough is a two-time DWTS champion, but it’s all pretty new to Wicks.

“I have 5 days to learn how to salsa,” he says, but if Wicks is nervous, you’d never know.

“It always looks better than it feels,” he says with a laugh

“I just want to have a decent show and maybe win the thing.  But it’s only about 3 months, and then I go back to touring.”

“The music never leaves,” he concludes.

That’s where the focus will be Thursday night, when Wicks and his four-piece band perform at the Claremont Opera House.

The singer-songwriter tasted success when his debut single, “Stealing Cinderella,” went to number five in the country charts.

The song also caught the attention of Tennessee Volunteers then-coach Philip Fulmer, who declared – “it hit me like a ton of bricks.”

He asked Chuck to play it at his daughter’s wedding.

Says Wicks, “to have a song you wrote touch someone so deeply that they ask for you to perform on one of the most special days of their lives – that is incredible.”

Learning of Fulmer’s interest pleased Wicks – musicians love attention, after all – but upon reflection he realizes his initial response may have seemed a bit nonchalant.

I said, “cool, dude – OK, let’s do it.”

“Little did I know he was Tennessee royalty,” Chuck says. “You don’t really know unless you’re in the state.”

Wicks was born and raised in Delaware, and went to the University of Florida with dreams of playing professional baseball.

But after arriving, he picked up the guitar.

“Freshman year, you don’t know what your major is gonna be,” he explains.

By the time he was a junior, Wicks had a record deal and was on his way to Nashville..

“The minute I got here, I got dropped by the label,” he recalls.  “But I dug in and got a job parking cars.”

He also worked with some of country music’s best songwriters.  Through the multi-year apprenticeship, says Wicks, “I really found out who I was as an artist.”

The success of “Stealing Cinderella” led to “Starting Now.” his debut on RCA Nashville.  For the album, Wicks selected a diverse mix of songs that reflected his own tastes.

“Growing up, I listened to R&B, pop, jazz and everything in between. I’m a big fan of music,” he says. He recently bragged in his blog about attending an AC/DC concert.

Wicks wrote all but one of the album’s 11 tracks, including arena country-rock (“All I Ever Wanted”), James Taylor-flavored folk pop (“When You’re Single”) and Brian McKnight-like country soul (“Mine All Mine”).

But his knack for tapping into universal emotions on ballads like “Stealing Cinderella” may lift Chuck Wicks to stardom on the order of Keith Urban or Brad Paisley (who he toured with in 2008).

The just-released single “Man of the House” tells the story of a 10-year old boy who wakes up early every morning to make breakfast for his sister and coffee for his mother.  He’s trying his best to stand in for his father, who’s serving overseas.

“It’s hard to be a kid when you’re the man of the house,” sings Wicks.

Co-written with Mike Mobley, Wicks says it “was a tough song to write.  We wanted to make sure to do this song justice because there are so many people who are living it.”

Wicks thinks that the song’s little domestic details – Captain Crunch in cereal bowls, Larry King on television – help people better relate to it.

After playing it in concert, many teary-eyed fans have thanked him for telling their story.

Says a humbled Wicks – “it’s mind blowing.”

Fans at Thursday’s Opera House show can expect  “a good hang.”

“We’re gonna have a good time, and we’ll do a very intimate show, maybe have a little Q&A,” he says.  “Don’t be shy about shouting a song if you want to hear it.”

Greedy Artists Hide Behind Their “Fans”

screwedI’ve long suspected that musicians were profiting from the so-called secondary concert ticket market.  How else to explain the availability of premium seats on Ticketmaster’s TicketExchange site literally seconds after they go on sale?  The site is advertised as a “fan-to-fan” source for the best ducats, which is a joke.  These people are speculators , not fans.

But it turns out that the speculators are the artists themselves, according to a story in the WSJ.  After discussing how Neil Diamond and Celine Dion profited from the practice, writer Ethan Smith added:

Selling premium-priced tickets on TicketExchange, priced and presented as resales by fans, is a practice used by many other top performers, according to people in the industry. Joseph Freeman, Ticketmaster’s senior vice president for legal affairs, says that the company’s “Marketplace” pages only rarely list tickets offered by fans.

The vast majority of tickets are sold by the artists and their promoters with the cooperation of Ticketmaster.

That’s not the sleaziest part.  These greedy rock stars – the article named Bon Jovi, Van Halen, and the upcoming Elton John/Billy Joel tour, but no doubt there are many more – masquerade as fans:

The ticket listings are offered in small batches, each at a price, such as $1,164.01, that mimics prices set via online auctions. After inquiries from The Wall Street Journal, the “tickets posted by fans” message was removed from the TicketExchange Web site. Prices also fell, narrowing the gap between Ticketmaster and TicketExchange Marketplace.

Yeah, big surprise.  Here’s another non-shocker:

Spokesmen for Bon Jovi and Ms. Dion had no comment. A spokesman for Van Halen said that the band could not be reached. A booking agent for Messrs. Joel and John did not respond to requests for comment.

For years, groupies tried to screw rock stars.  Now the rock stars are screwing the fans.