Ex-pat pop

KurtBaker2When Kurt Baker toured with his punk pop band The Leftovers, and as a solo act beginning in 2010, one luxury he always allowed was satellite radio in the rental van. It stayed locked on a single station,Underground Garage, packed with bands  that inspired them like Ramones, Blondie and The Plimsouls, along with up and coming acts.

“For us it was awesome,” Baker said in a recent Skype interview from his home in Madrid, Spain. “There were great DJs on there and great garage rock, both new and old stuff.”

His bandmate Geoff Palmer one day decided to send the station a single by his band, The Connection. To his delight, their cover of the 1956 Moon Mullican hit “Seven Nights to Rock” was named a weekly Coolest Song in the World. When Underground Garage creator Steven Van Zandt asked Palmer if he knew any other good bands, he pointed them to Baker.

Baker subsequently racked up multiple Coolest Song wins, on his own and with The New Trocaderos, his side project with Palmer and  Brad Marino, also of The Connection. Last year, Van Zandt signed him to Wicked Cool Records and released Baker’s latest album, In Orbit.

Inconveniently, satellite success happened right around the time Baker moved overseas. He’d grown weary of the withering punk pop scene in his home base of Portland, Maine, and its sharp contrast to to the energy he’d found in Europe. “It was a buzzkill to come back; finally, I decided to see about living in Spain, see if I could do it.,” Baker said. “I had enough money for a few months, but it really worked out …  there are a lot more opportunities for my style of music, and a culture for it that feels really comfortable.”

Initially, Baker was a troubadour, accompanying himself on guitar. Then offers to play summer festivals started to arrive, and he recruited three natives and has kept busy ever since. For a guy whose motto is “have a good time, all the time,” it’s a perfect situation. There’s something about Spain,” he said. “There’s just a huge appreciation for rock and roll, power pop and garage rock.”

He’s returned home to visit family and play an occasional solo gig, but the new record has given Baker the chance to tour with a full band for the first time since 2013. A March 23 show at Dover Brickhouse includes his band Kurt Baker Combo, The Connection, label mate Soraia, and 90s legends Watts, now with Tim McCoy of Heavens to Murgatroid’s on bass.

“Tim has helped us out many times back when I was living in Portland; he helped set up shows and we’d go down,” Baker said “We’re friends, and we’ve had a lot of fun together in the past, so I’m really looking forward to playing with him and seeing those guys.”

What promises to be one of best rock shows to hit the region in years is the second stop on a tour that stops in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Milwaukee (home to Baker’s favorite basketball team) and Washington, D.C. The two-week run wraps up in Boston on April 7, with a show at Allston’s O’Brien’s Pub.

The busy schedule leaves Baker little room for other work, so studio time with The New Trocaderos will have to wait for another visit. “There is word of maybe doing a new record in the future, so who knows? It’s a fun project,” he said. “We’re kind of like this New England Rockpile – Geoff, Brad, Kris Rogers and I have always played together, and we’re always in each other’s bands.”

Conceived by Los Angeles songwriter and producer Mike Chaney, the supergroup has released one album – 2015’s Thrills & Chills – and three EPs and the single that launched the project, “Money Talks” backed with “The Kids” – both written by Chaney. Along with longtime Seacoast cohort Rogers, the band includes drummer Rick Orcutt.

What keeps it fun for Baker? “I really love playing live and seeing the expressions on people’s faces when they’re listening to rock and roll and having a good time, also meeting people and visiting new places,” he said. “The Combo’s been touring a lot this year, we’ve been to Sweden, Austria, Germany … that’s what keeps interesting, to be able to tour and play. I feel fortunate to be able to do this. As long as I can still do it, I will.”

Kurt Baker Combo, Soraia, The Connection and Watts

Where: Dover Brickhouse, 2 Orchard St., Dover

When: Thursday, March. 23, 7 p.m.

Tickets: $7/cover – see bit.ly/2nqwJzl

Heavy hitters – Cactus brings muscular rock to Tupelo


Drummer Carmine Appice believes the roots of heavy music — the bruising rock that predated Led Zeppelin — boil down to four bands: Cream, The Who, Jimi Hendrix Experience and his first band, Vanilla Fudge.

“Fudge set the precedent for American bands,” he said in a recent phone interview. “Hendrix was considered English even though he was from here.”
At the core of each group was a solid rhythm section. Vanilla Fudge had Appice and bassist Tim Bogert. Their slowed down, throbbing cover of the Surpremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” hit the pop charts in summer 1967. When the group broke up in 1970, Appice and Bogert formed Cactus, and later played in Beck, Bogert & Appice with guitar hero Jeff Beck.
Complications from a motorcycle accident forced Bogert to retire from music in 2010, but Appice continues to tour with versions of both Cactus and Vanilla Fudge. The latter perform Sept. 22 at Tupelo Music Hall; the reconstituted Fudge appears at Blue Ocean Music Hall in Salisbury, Mass., Oct. 14.

Read more here.

Big in Bangor

James McMurtry plays Prescott Park

Originally published in Seacoast Scene 25 August 2016

Every September, James McMurtry and his band spend a long weekend in Maine. The tradition began when WKIT, a Bangor classic rock radio station owned by Stephen King, added McMurtry’s album Childish Things to its playlist. “They  put ‘Choctaw Bingo’ on, which is like nine minutes long and crazy for radio, “ McMurtry said recently. “But they had the  nerve; then we put out ‘We Can’t Make It Here.’” 

The latter, a searing indictment of modern economic marginalization, was named song of the decade by several critics. It particularly resonated in Bangor. “For awhile, that was our best market anywhere,” McMurtry said. “Maine at that time had lost about 30,000 jobs to outsourcing, which is mainly what that song was about. It lit up the phones pretty good … we  could sell out a 500-seat theatre five nights in a row.” 

This year, McMurtry added an outdoor show at Portsmouth’s Prescott Park to gigs at the Blue Hill Fair in Bangor and Savage Oakes Winery in Union, Maine. “We’re just going to fly into Manchester, rent a car and drive around for three days and then fly home,” he said. 

Some of the songs in McMurtry’s set will be drawn from his most recent LP, 2015’s Complicated Game. His first new disc in six years, it’s a strong effort, balancing hard luck story songs – “South Dakota,” “Carlisle’s Haul” – with aching tenderness on tracks like “She Loves Me” and “You Got to Me.”  

One of the best is “Long Island Sound,” with a wry optimism that recalls “Pink Houses” by John Mellencamp (an early McMurtry booster). The song’s narrator is an Oklahoman who’s transplanted his family to New York and the American  dream. “A bay boat and a 401k/two cars in the driveway, two boys and a girl” is atypical subject matter for McMurtry.  

Hearing him explain the song’s beginnings provides an enlightening glimpse into his creative process.

“I was stuck on the Whitestone Bridge after my son’s college graduation – Google Maps pointed me across it instead of the Throg’s Neck,” McMurtry said. “I realized that’s the way of life for a lot of people. So I started playing around with words and came up with the notion of writing the anti- ‘stuck up here with Dixie on my mind’ song [about] a Southerner working in the north that likes it.” 

McMurtry quashes the notion that the mood of the new record signals a personal mellowing. “I write songs one line at a
time,”he said. “I’m not really thinking in a certain vein, just trying to follow the melody and the chord structure.” 

He has strong views on the current political landscape. “I’s not Trump himself that we have to worry about, if he wasn’t running there would be somebody like him,” he said, adding, “I don’t understand why anybody’s surprised by any of this.  

Timothy McVeigh blew the side off a building, killed a bunch of kids because he didn’t like the government … long before Obama. There was a groundswell of support for David Koresh in Waco, so it surprises us that there’s a groundswell of  support for Cliven Bundy? It’s the same thing.” 

However, McMurtry needs a story before any of these observations become lyrics. “I don’t write songs as an act of will … I need a character,” he said. “Very rarely do I write a song where I get my point across. I got really lucky with ‘We Can’t Make it Here.’” 

On the album, “Long Island Sound” morphed into a Celtic drinking song, with heavy layers of Irish penny-whistle and mandolin. “I don’t know where they came up with that idea,” McMurtry said with chagrin. “They emailed the song to Ireland; the Irish guys put their stuff on and sent it back.”

Much about how producer C.C. Adcock finished Complicated Game is also a mystery to McMurtry, who toured a lot during its making. “I was there for awhile for Ivan Neville’s vocal sessions, he was pretty cool,” he said, “but I’m not really sure how
Benmont Tench wound up on that record … I think they just found out he was in New Orleans, dragged him into the studio and made him play keyboards.”

On the other hand, McMurtry was quite pleased with the version of “She Loves Me” that ended up on the album. It sounds
enough like one of Randy Newman’s best songs that they toyed with the notion of asking him to add a vocal. “None of us knew how,” McMurtry said. “I did not know when I wrote the song, but later when we listened to it, I said it’d be perfect for Randy Newman.”

James McMurtry  

When: Thursday, Sept. 1, 7:30 p.m.

Where: Prescott Park, Portsmouth

Tickets: $10 suggested donation

Barnstorming the Beach

IMG_3722Joe Walsh with JD & the Straight Shot at Casino Ballroom, Hampton Beach, NH – Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Last Tuesday’s Joe Walsh: One Hell of a Night stop at Casino Ballroom was a history lesson in the gonzo singer/guitarist’s career. It kicked off with his first hit, the James Gang’s “Walk Away” followed by a newer song, the modernity-phobic “Analog Man.”

Apart from a left field cover of Sly & the Family Stone’s “Everyday People” and a couple of nuggets from Walsh’s 1972 Barnstorm album, he stuck to well-known solo material and Eagles selections, with one delightful exception – an extended, incendiary take of James Gang Rides Again‘s “The Bomber.”

It was a perfect mid-set palate cleanser. The mini jazz-rock opera featured politically incorrect lyrics (give him a break, he wrote in in 1971) wrapped in soaring interpretations of Ravel’s “Bolero” and Vince Guaraldi’s “Cast Your Fate to the Wind.”

Opening the show was JD & the Straight Shot, a bluegrass band with solid chops that held the milling about crowd well enough to earn raucous applause. The seven-member band’s 45-minute set leaned on the recently released CD, Ballyhoo. High points included tight harmonies on set opener “Empty” and “Glide” – the latter a tender song about front man James Dolan’s young son.

Most riveting was “Under That Hood,” a song from Ballyhoo that Dolan wrote in 2014 after George Zimmerman murdered Trayvon Martin and was acquitted under Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law. Dolan’s feelings are clear:

Nothing in his pocket but candy and a pop/What made him different and why’d he get stopped?/The color of his skin or the hoodie on his head/Ain’t no reason for the boy to be dead.

They played an unreleased new song about hidden love with a very bluegrass title, “I Know You Know I Know.” Its charming lyric had the makings of a fine duet with singer Erin Carley, who shined on backing vocals throughout. Regrettably, Dolan didn’t share the lead. Maybe next time – the band hits Gilford, NH’s Bank of NH Pavilion at Meadowbrook on September 16 to open for Don Henley.

Mary Jo Stilip provided robust fiddle; guitarist Marc Copely stayed in the pocket while acting as music director, exchanging tasty licks with JJ Appleton; Byron House and drummer Shawn Pelton offered a solid rhythm section.

A mixture of raconteur and carnival barker, Dolan held the spotlight admirably. He’s led various versions of his band for over a decade, and Ballyhoo is the strongest record yet.

Any review of JD & the Straight Shot usually includes mention of Dolan’s day job – he runs Cablevision and owns Madison Square Garden, among other things.

JD’s status as an actual billionaire may provide a straight shot to dates with the Eagles and Joe Walsh, but when the lights go down, net worth counts for nothing if the music isn’t there – it is. One benefit of having big bucks for this kind of endeavor is being able to hire the best musicians.

Beside, with JD & the Straight Shot, there’s one less Kickstarter campaign clogging your timeline.

LA Woman – Best Coast hits Seacoast

Best-Coast-California-Nights-2015As the name suggests, Best Coast has serious affinity for its home state. “We’ve got the ocean, got the babes, got the sun, we’ve got the waves,” Bethany Cosentino sings on one of their many buoyant songs, “this is the only place for me.” Cosentino had the words “California Dreamin’” tattooed on her right arm during the band’s first tour, after a huge storm marked by tornado warnings threatened to cancel a show in Columbus, Ohio.

“I was so freaked out and missing home; our old drummer and I decided let’s just go get tattoos,” Cosentino recalled by phone recently. “She got a pumpkin to signify the fall; mine signified the fact that I am happy we come from somewhere where we don’t have tornadoes.”

Cosentino started Best Coast after a forlorn attempt at living in New York ended in 2009. Once back in Los Angeles, she dialed up teenage pal Bobb Bruno and pitched her idea for a band that exuded both vintage pop and the grittier aspects of SoCal life. “I thought … who had the knowledge of this music and was someone I really like being around – Bobb was that person,” she said. “I reached out to him and the story unfolded from there.”

The two shared a love for a wide spectrum of music, from Beach Boys to the Cocteau Twins, though Bruno doesn’t fit the popster image. “He looks like a guy that would only listen to metal.” Cosentino said. “But he’s basically an encyclopedia; I can say to him, ‘hey, I want something to sound like if the Ronettes and the Vaselines had a baby,’ and he knows what that means.”

Lesley Gore is a key influence – Cosentino told one writer that the 60s singer was the reason she started the group. The 2015 album California Nights is named for one of her favorite Gore songs. In an eerie twist, Gore passed away just as the album was named. “It was like a weird cosmic thing from the universe,” Cosentino said.

The title track and its namesake are dissimilar, however. Best Coast’s “California Nights” sounds like a hookup between Brian Wilson and Neko Case while Dark Side of the Moon plays on vinyl in the background. It’s also a cautious celebration – “I never want to get so high that I can’t come back down to real life,” Cosentino sings.

“One of the main inspirations of the record was to touch upon the light and dark aspects of LA as a place, because I feel like when you live here you see that it’s not all sunshine, palm trees and beautiful people,” Cosentino explained. Best Coast deftly balances the E! Network version with the LA reflected by Eve Babitz or Tom Waits.

The title cut is a showcase for Bruno, a multi-instrumentalist who collects guitar pedals like Pokemon pocket monsters, as well as an evocation their home’s ambiguity. “I think that song … taps into California and what it means to people that don’t live here,’ she said. “Then it uses some of the darkness that exists here to make this swirling, moody anthem – a lot of people sort of pick up on the vibe.”

Plans to work with Butch Walker on the new album never got off the ground. “Butch is an amazing producer and songwriter, an overall great guy; but the vibe just didn’t really feel right at the time,” Cosentino explained. “One of the really cool things about being in a creative industry is that you can say this doesn’t feel right … and part on good terms. Butch and I still talk, are still friends and we support one another. We just didn’t feel it was a good fit at the time.”

The industry has a harsher side, particularly for women. Cosentino got into the fray earlier this year when she wrote a piece for Lena Dunham’s Lenny Letter about sexism and misogyny in the music business. In May, she appeared on The Daily Show to discuss the piece. “I’ve always been very outspoken person, and felt like it was my civic duty as a person with a voice to just say, hey this is an issue we should be talking about,” she said. “It’s not fair that women are being treated differently, not just in this industry but in the world in general.”

Cosentino said the response to her stance has been heartening. “It’s nice to know that I’m looked at as this big voice, that’s in turn allowed other women out there to stand up for themselves to be strong and empowered.”

This originally appeared in the July 28, 2016 issue of Seacoast Scene
Best Coast w/ Stargazer Lilies
When: Monday, August 1, 9 p.m.
Where: 3S Artspace, 319 Vaughan St., Portsmouth
Tickets: $25 at 3sartspace.org

Classic Brand


Back in the days before grunge ate hair metal and wiped its mouth with a flannel sleeve, Kelly Hansen had a nice gig. As lead vocalist for melodic hard rockers Hurricane, he toured with the likes of Stryper and Gary Moore. Life was good, and his band even scored a few hits. Then Pearl Jam, Nirvana et.al. shoved his genre into irrelevancy.

So Hansen got into producing and artist development. “No one wanted to hear a voice like me, so I started doing other things in the business; I knew I had to wait it out,” he said in a recent phone interview. That lasted a dozen years before Hansen realized, “I’m not doing what I’m best at, which is singing. I decided to be more proactive about joining a band.”

Around this time, Foreigner co-founder Mick Jones was organizing a charity show in Santa Barbara, California. The guitarist was putting out feelers for a singer to replace Lou Gramm, who played his final show with the band in 2003. “I made some calls and I talked to management,” Hansen said. “After a back-and-forth process of a couple months … I jammed with them for like an hour and a half. They called me an hour later and said, ‘we’re booking shows for next weekend; could you start rehearsing tomorrow?’”

Just like that, Hansen went from toiling in the trenches to performing some of classic rock’s sturdiest songs, like “Hot Blooded,” “Urgent” and the proto-power ballad “Waiting for a Girl Like You.” For a guy that only wanted to sing, it was a dream come true.

As Foreigner’s new lead vocalist, Hansen plays it faithful, but purposely isn’t a doppelgänger. “I brought my own shoes; I don’t try to be anybody else,” he said. “I like the songs the way I learned to love them, and I think that’s the way most people like to hear them. So I’m injecting myself in there, but this is Foreigner doing Foreigner … they don’t need me to change them.”

Asked the inevitable question – what’s his favorite song? – Hansen demurs. “As a guy who sings for a living, I have this great selection of songs to sing every night,” he said. “You know how some times you’re in the mood for an apple and others an orange? Some nights the band’s really feeling one song and the next it’s another. They’re all great, so I never lose.”

Hansen believes his background as a Big 80s rocker is an asset – he isn’t a twentysomething recruit from some karaoke bar. “I think that’s part of what all of these members bring to the table,” he said. “We’ve all been around the block, and have an understanding of what it takes to make it happen.”

Another benefit of Hansen’s years in service: his singing has seasoned. “10 or 15 years earlier my voice probably wouldn’t have been right for this,” he said. “I think as I got older it kind of thickened up a little bit, and I think my vibe fits the band a little more now than it would’ve a long time ago.”

With Jones the sole remaining original member of Foreigner, there’s a notion that the 2016 vintage is a brand, not a band. Hansen’s having none of it, noting that such trash talk began long before he stepped up to the microphone to sing “Double Vision.” When their self-titled debut came out in 1977 – coincidentally, the year punk rock broke in America – cynics lobbed spitballs; Foreigner’s gold records kept piling up.

“People said that Foreigner was created in a board room somewhere by record company executives and it’s so not true,” Hansen said. “I’ve always been a fan of commercial pop and rock music. Back in the 70s, you couldn’t say that without people looking at you sideways, but that’s what I’ve always been. Foreigner was one of the best bands at doing that.”

Haters gonna hate, Hansen allows. “These are intense songs and they bring out very intense reactions in people,” he said. “But that kind of bow and quiver, it’s a great thing to have.”

The perks are also cool, too – and getting better as Foreigner’s 40th anniversary approaches in 2017. “We’re traveling around … Israel, Belgium, Switzerland, England, that’s always fun,” Hansen said. “We’ve already done the Lincoln Center, and we’re going to play at Carnegie Hall and the Royal Albert Hall. That’s a lot of high-end places for a band like ours to be stomping into.”

When: Wednesday, July 27, 8 p.m. (doors at 6) 18+
Where: Casino Ballroom, 169 Ocean Blvd., Hampton Beach
Tickets: $36-$76 at casinoballroom.com

This story originally appeared in the 21 July 2016 Seacoast Scene

More comedy

A big story like this week’s Hippo comedy cover piece inevitably leaves a few things out. I wanted to talk about UNH’s Funniest Person on Campus and the feeder program behind it, and mention the upstart standup shows happening at Manchester’s Double Midnight Comics, but time and space prevented it.

I also reached out to perhaps the biggest comedy dog in the pack – Casino Ballroom in Hampton Beach, a place that books more big name comics than any room north of Boston. The interwebs conspired against the thoughts of the Ballroom’s Andrew Herrick arriving before deadline, but I thought his remarks worthy of a separate post.

How well does comedy do at Casino Ballroom?

I dare say it is our most successful “genre” in the sense that everyone loves to laugh and for comics our size room is like a rock band playing an arena.

How does it compare to a few years ago?

The comedy series has been in full effect for 10+ years and has always attracted the top 10 or 12 touring comics. The big difference now is that comedy has grown so much and there are many more comedians playing arenas, which wasn’t the case in 2005. Comedy in general is way more popular.

Do you have any favorite acts?

All of them, I LOVE the comedy series. Some of the best are Jim Gaffigan, Bill Burr, Brian Regan, Sebastian Maniscalco (I would call him the current reigning champ) and so many more. We have a bunch of first timers this year with Chris D’Elia, Kathleen Madigan and Hannibal Buress. It should be a fantastic series this year.

Are local comics on the bill?

Usually a Boston comic opens the show, usually they have some kind of former connection with the headliner, either opened for them before or know them personally.

If so, how did they work out?

Most of the time they are amazing because they are 45 min set comics being asked to do 15-20 mins of their best material.

Any other observations on the laugh business?

If you want to remember what it looks like to see large groups of people smiling together in 2016, just stand in our parking lot after a show. Pretty inspiring, laughter makes everything better.