Local Rhythms – A Genius Move

I have over 17,000 songs in my iTunes library.  Some have been played a lot, others once or twice.  Hitting “shuffle” is a great way to revisit a track that may have slipped by the first time, but it’s not very scientific.

Last week, when Apple announced an upgrade to their popular music software, I immediately latched on to the new “Genius” feature.  Pick a song, click on the Jimmy Neutron button, and presto!  A playlist of like-minded music appears.

Choosing a Genesis tune will spawn tracks by Rush, Yes and ELP; pick the Decembrists, you’ll get Broken Social Scene, Stars and New Pornographers.

When I’m in the mood for Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, a random Stooges track can really bust up the mood. With shuffle, everything gets mixed willy-nilly.  Though I’m pretty sure my iPod play more Beatles songs by design.

Genius lets you put the peanut butter with the jelly, and leave the mayo for bologna.

It also (big surprise) suggests songs for purchase at the iTunes Music Store.

That seems a lot like Pandora, the Internet radio service that’s already installed on many an iPhone and iPod Touch.

But Genius is based on stuff that you, and others like you, already own.

Like Pandora, the information iTunes sends to Apple includes data about what you listen to and how often, as well as the playlists you make.  Both services make recommendations and provide an easy path to purchase digital music.

But there are a lot more iTunes users in the world.   The music store has sold 300 million tracks since its inception.  5 or 10 percent of the tracks on a typical iPod are bought from digital music stores.

So that mean there’s upwards of 3 to 4 billion songs in the iTunes listener “cloud” for Genius to study.  As listener data aggregates, playlist accuracy improves.

Forget the election, this is the kind of polling data I’m interested in.

Genius lets you delete songs from playlists before saving them, but it’s not clear whether information about that behavior is sent to Apple.  More straightforward is Pandora’s ‘thumbs up or down’ method of rejecting recommendations.

But size matters.

Two factors govern the future of music.  First, understand the customer.  Second, and most important, earn the customer’s trust.

As long as iTunes users believe Apple isn’t colluding with the RIAA or selling customer lists, this is a Genius move.

What’s up this weekend?

Thursday: Chris Kleeman Band, Inn at Weathersfield – A nice combination of award-winning food and an ace blues man, who traverses the history of American music and gives each performance a unique stamp.  Kleeman finishes the series he began back in May with selections from Elmore James, Muddy Waters, Blind Willie McTell and B.B. King (who produced Chris’s first album back in 1970. Note the early (6:30 PM) start time.

Friday: Loose Cannons Acoustic, Salt hill II – These guys rock pretty hard for an all acoustic band, covering guys like Clapton and the Beatles, as well as grooves from Bob Marley and Stray Cats rockabilly.  Eclectic is the word that best describes them, with a musical outlook spanning decades and styles.  Of course, the room they’re playing is pretty nice too, with great pints and an excellent pub menu, as well as a fine restaurant downstairs.

Saturday: Humane Society Benefit, Hit or Miss – The hard rock community converges at this Rockingham club for another good cause.  The show includes Stonewall, d’Brotherhood, TranScent, Bow to None, Anger Rising, Mercy Machine and (considering the beneficiary) the most aptly named of the bunch – Mongrel.  Proceeds benefit the Springfield Humane Society.  Seeing all those hard-edged rockers on a poster with cute little kitten eyes – priceless.

Sunday: Sunapee SunFest, Mount Sunapee – New York City based singer-songwriter Shannon Corey, with plenty of Tori/Alanis influences, headlines the music portion of this day long celebration of sustainable living and holistic health. I wonder which friolator oil works better as a bio-diesel fuel – trans-fat or non?  Ponder these questions while enjoying Click Horning, Carey Lee Rush and others.

Tuesday: Jason Cann, Firestones – My favorite unrecorded area singer-songwriter plays while special guest chefs cook (featured every Tuesday in September), though I like the simple pleasures at this Quechee restaurant.  Their burgers and beers are top-notch.  There’s plenty going on every night at Firestones, including a Cann-hosted open mike night each Thursday.

Wednesday: Sonya Kitchell, Higher Ground –
Touring behind the recently released “This Storm,” Kitchell originally got attention for her precocious jazz singing as a 16-year old in Northampton clubs.  She’s 19 now, and rocking harder, though she keeps it jazzy on “From Here to Now,” and “Walk Away” is a gorgeous ballad.  Mostly, though, she’s copping a rocked-up Suzanne Vega pose.  I like it.

Local Rhythms – Cover Songs & Paying It Forward

I spend way too much time talking about stuff that bugs me, but after getting mugged by Ticketmaster and Tropical Storm Hannah at a big-name show last Saturday, the trend seemed ready to continue.

Paying 300 bucks for seats in the rain makes me cranky, though I have to say that the parking lot party was fantastic.

But when I left the show soggy and in a mood it looked like Great Woods (Tweeter, Comcast or whatever that shed in Western Massachusetts is called – the name changes like New England weather) was in for a slagging.

Then I heard Sugarland’s cover of “Come On Get Higher” and it made me smile and forget.  Great music does that.

Sometimes it takes another artist to bring a song to life, like when Jose Feliciano exposed the Doors’ “Light My Fire” in 1968.

At the Johnny Cash memorial concert in 2003, Marty Stuart’s churning version of “Rock Island Line” made me a fan.  But it was Kid Rock’s revelatory take of “What is Truth” that really moved me.

The cross-pollination of country and rock – call it the “Crossroads” effect – gets better every day.  It’s best when established stars bring lesser-known players into the spotlight.

Sugarland got a career boost when Jon Bon Jovi invited Jennifer Nettles to sing on his record. Now, with sold-out shows and a number one album, the band is paying it forward by releasing a live take of Matt Nathanson’s spirited ballad.

The original version is great, but the buoyant, romantic song calls out for a bit of twang.  Throw in a little harp and harmony, and it was like hearing it for the first time.

That song, a “Love on the Inside – Deluxe Fan Edition” bonus cut, made me seek out Nathanson’s other work, which one writer said evokes “a new human emotion known as ‘craffing’” – crying and laughing at the same time.

He shares that trait with other singer/songwriters – Jason Mraz, David Gray and Steve Poltz come to mind.  But Matt Nathanson probably invented it.

And right when I needed him, he cured my angry blues.

See, that’s the thing.  When I’m ready to explode like some Roger Rabbit extra with steam coming out of his ears, something happens to remind me why I love music.

It’s a paradox – while the business is a horror show, there’s so much great music it’s almost impossible to keep up.

But keep trying.  It’s hard work, but worth it.

What’s the local buzz?

Thursday: Terry Diers, Salt Hill Pub – Blues night at Salt Hill with a guy who’s like a lot of Upper Valley musicians – it’s hard to keep track of all the bands he’s in.  Tonight Terry keeps it down and dirty with a few of his friends, but on other occasions he rocks it up with Skinx, goes Celtic with Samantha Moffatt (who’s at the Farmer’s Market this afternoon), or plays solo. Thursday Blues runs through October 22.

Friday: Kelly Ravin, Canoe Club – Another intriguing singer-songwriter at this fun (and typically on Friday night, crowded) Hanover eatery. You know the drill – finagle a table close to the stage so you can hear this guy, who sings a bit like Damien Rice or Jeffrey Foucault, and writes spare, storytelling songs.  Before going solo, Ravin played with the Burlington band Lucy Vincent.  Every few weeks CC books a gem, and this could well be another.

Saturday: Adrienne Young/Olabelle, Tunbridge World’s Fair – This upcountry fair, now in its 137th year, features bluegrass from Young, a serious picker with a great voice, and bluesy Americana from Olabelle, which includes Levon Helm’s daughter Amy.   Along with some great guests (Gilliam Welch, David Rawlins, Calexico), Levon and Amy played a fantastic set at last month’s Newport Folk Festival.

Sunday: Acoustic Open Stage, Umpleby’s Bakery – Cakes aren’t the only thing great about this Hanover bakery, located a stone’s throw from downtown on South Street.  This open mike sounds like an audition for future music – I certainly hope so.  I love the vibe here, a cozy alternative to Starbucks that knows how to treat a sweet tooth.

Tuesday: Jackson Browne, Orpheum – He’s probably my favorite singer-songwriter, as much for commitment and integrity as music.  Over the past several years, Jackson’s played solo, releasing a pair of unplugged recordings.  But with a new album due soon (“Time the Conqueror”), he’s back on the road with a full band.  Unfortunately, this Boston show is the closest he’ll get to here (though you can watch him on the Colbert Report September 23).

Wednesday: Tomatoes on the Terrace, Hanover Inn – No music here, but plenty of tomatoes – a contest for area growers sponsored by the Upper Valley Slow Food Convivium.  Prizes will be awarded for best looking, most surprising, biggest, smallest, and of course, best tasting.