Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Covers of the Week 61 & 62

I should have graduated UMass in 1988 but coming down with mono and picking up a couple of minors (and a girlfriend) along the way necessitated an extra semester. And really, why leave the Happy Valley in January? So I stayed around waiting for my girl (later my wife) to finish up her year and then we moved in together in Somerville that spring.

When I hear the song "Mallo Cup" it brings me back instantly to that exact moment -- I can remember walking around Somerville, Cambridge, and Boston in my Chuck Taylors and cut-off flannel shirts, in the beautiful spring weather. I was moving in with the girl of my dreams, living in absolute and hot sin. My band had just released a pretty well-received indie record on SST, the label of my heroes. We were planning out tours, more records, and the rest of our lives. We all lived within a couple of blocks together. We had just hooked up with the fabulous management team of Tom Johnston and Joyce Linehan, who worked with the Lemonheads, Galaxie 500, and more (later the went out on their own and we had Tom as our manager -- he had Bettie Serveert and Come later on). And, especially in hindsight, the Boston club and indie rock scene was entering a peak period. I feel like we must have just had a show at the Channel with the Lemons and maybe Galaxy 500 and/or Bullet LaVolta around this time. I am giddy just remembering it all.

We later went on to become good buddies and do a lot of touring across the U.K. and Europe (and a few shows in Japan as well) with the guys in the Lemonheads. Evan is still one of my all-time favorite singers and a guy with an enormous (Big Gay) heart that shows in his songs.

Also around this time, we were working on our second LP, Birdbrain, again with J Mascis producing. The first record was started with the great Tim O'Heir at the original Fort Apache in Roxbury. J came on about halfway through as another set of ears and suggestions. This second record, we had J from the beginning, along with Sean Slade. And we were recording at the then-new Cambridge outpost of the Fort, on Camp Street, walking distance from my new pad.

J and I shared a love of the great 80's Boston band, the Neats. They had started as a pre-REM (or at least concurrent) moody, neo-psychadelic pop band, with a somewhat dark sound, with a lot of reverbed-out guitar strumming (don't call it "jangle"). If you know the Chills, early REM, perhaps the Feelies, you might be in the right ballpark. Wiretrain? Maybe. But there was something very Boston about the early Neats. It contained this minor key, Cellar's By Starlight trait that is found in the Boston continuum stretching from at least Mission of Burma, Moving Targets, Buffalo Tom, to today's Mean Creek. They put out an EP and an LP or two with this template before morphing into a harder edged blues-rock combo. But when I had first come to Boston in 1982, I remember one of those magical Boston college radio moments, when I first heard "Red and Grey." Of course, it influenced me greatly when I decided to start writing my own songs. You'd be forgiven if you did not hear or remember "Pink on Green." Red and grey is much better color combo anyway.

The Neats were a legendary club draw in those days. I think they were on the cover the first time I saw the local music paper, Boston Rock. I would have been a junior in high school. I went to go see them every time I could when I was up at UMass and around Boston's clubs.

Well, they have reunited and played last night in town. And we have the honor of sharing the stage with them and another heroic combo, the Lyres, tomorrow night at the Orpheum Theater -- home to many fondly remembered mythical concerts of my adolescence -- for Boston's New Year's Eve celebration, First Night.

An early selection for CoTW this week, and a two-fer! Here is my own continuum of Boston rock, a medley of Red and Grey with Mallo Cup. Please forgive my guitar clams; I'm no Bert Jansch and had no time/patience to correct them. By the way, all of the Neats Ace of Heart label records are being (have been?) re-released. Go get 'em.

Red and Grey and Mallo Cup mp3.

Here is last year's New Years Eve CoTW

Friday, December 25, 2009

Cover of the Week 60

I was saddened to hear of the passing of the great American singer/songwriter, Vic Chesnutt, who passed away last night or early today.

Vic’s records had a huge impact on me. I brought out all of the following CDs while we were touring back in the mid-‘90s:

West of Rome
About to Choke

And I picked up some later ones, like Left to His Own Devices. But it was Little and West of Rome which really killed me.

Perhaps it is a cliche by now, but I am at a loss at how else to explain Vic’s gifts other than we know some artists go out to the outer reaches or hidden depths and report back to us. Vic plunged deep and quietly brought back versions of what other artist-seekers have sought. But he told it to his fans in ways that only he could. Like all great poets, his voice was intensely personal and his language specific and profoundly evocative.

We sought out Vic when we reached Athens, GA and were thrilled to play with him at the second iteration of the famous 40 Watt club. We got to play other gigs with him over the years. He was a great person to get to know back then but I had not seen him in many years by the time Tom Maginnis and I bumped into him with Kurt Wagner of Lambchop, in a hotel elevator in Utrecht in 2007 or ’08 when we were playing the same festival. I felt like I was again meeting a legend. He was gentle man but his presence and talents awed me.

Vic's song, "Florida," was specifically influential on my song of the same name. They both approach deaths in that state. But that’s where the similarities end; mine is a raging wail about a relative growing old and dying surrounded by the flimsy trashiness that abounds there, while Vic’s is a plaintive meditation on the suicide of a friend. I wrote about it here on about 10 years ago.

So, I could not think of a more apt cover this week. Vic took his own life, it appears. And I have just spent three weeks in Miami picking up the pieces of a senseless and obscene tragedy in Miami, written in older posts.

Sorry to be the bearer of such sadness on Christmas night.

Donations for Vic's family can be made via this link, thanks to his friend, Kristin Hersh.

Florida mp3 (recorded December 25, 2009)

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Covers of the Week 58 & 59

When I was just starting out selling real estate, in about 2001, I sent out a couple of letters to owners of no more than a handful of houses around me that I had seen and admired for years. I am not an aggressive sort by nature, and back then I was even less sure than I am today about transitioning into brokering real estate as a day job. By now, I am established and have gotten a bit more used to this persona, though it is still somewhat of a struggle and not something I always wear naturally; am I a singer/songwriter/Buffalo Tom guy, or am I a suburban real estate agent? I don’t think I have yet fully reconciled these two disparate occupations.

Nothing came of those few letters I sent back then. And over the years, I have quite established a referral base which allows me to be slightly less aggressive in self-promotion and marketing. But I got an email this week that read:

Although you once expressed in selling our house, we're not interested yet in selling what we have or buying a new house. What we'd like to ask is where we can find your CD, Diving for Gold. Our son is a big fan of Buffalo Tom, and we'd like him to have the CD for Christmas...

Well, I wrote back telling the kind folks how embarrassed I was that I had been so forward in my early attempts to establish myself in town as a broker. This certainly does not square with how an aloof rock & roller is supposed to be. And though such tactics may reek of desperation, it is sort of necessary in a medium-sized town filled with hundreds of agents.

But I also noted that Buffalo Tom had no CD by the title. But it did sound familiar to me, and of course, it is the title of the CD by my friends in the band Session Americana. I told Mr. and Mrs. Kennedy (not everyone up here is named that, I have to note) that I would be glad to ask my buddies to sign the CD.

Nonsense, the Kennedy’s replied, regarding my admission of shame regarding the letter; they were flattered and proud that I admired their house enough to write. And they told me they had mixed up the titles on their son’s wish list and now were requesting Three Easy Pieces.

On my second reply, I noted the email address, from Joe Kennedy “(no relation).” It actually started with an “XJ.” X.J. Kennedy?

Soon after moving to Massachusetts in high school, I had picked up this poetry anthology called The Modern Poets at a used book store in Boston. It basically surveyed poetry from the Modernists up through the ‘70s. Each poet covered in the book had a full-page black-and-white portrait -- generally naturally-lit candids -- across from a short bio and a poem or two. Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and a few others were noted for their Massachusetts roots. Included among these Boston-area poets was X.J. Kennedy, who looked very cool with big mutton chops and horned rimmed glasses, if my memory serves. It was one of those important books in my development as a reader.

I remember being struck by that image, the poems, the Boston ties, and would later take note when I noticed Mr. Kennedy’s name pop up over the intervening years. When Wikipedia started taking root, I noticed that X.J. Kennedy was listed as a resident of my town. And the most recent notice I took was this past month, when Mr. Kennedy and the famous poet and author, Donald Hall, were slated to ready at a gallery here in town on a weeknight. I had mentioned this whole back story to my wife, this arc from high school on; how X.J. was a “famous poet.”

I had fully planned on attending such a rare event in our sleepy little town, when family business popped up and called me down to Florida unexpectedly.

But here I was a few weeks later examining the email address. So I Googled Mr. Kennedy, and sure enough, he and his wife, Dorothy, came up as living here in Lexington. And he had told me in his email that he was 80. That would square with the stuff I found on the internet. So I wrote back:

Dear Mr. Kennedy,

You are not, by chance, X.J. Kennedy, the poet, are you? If so, I am quite honored. (Well, if not, I am still honored, ha ha). I am taking a wild swing from your email address. I had read you as a kid in high school, having picked up an anthology called something like, "The Modern Poets." I was smitten with writing poetry and went on to take a class with James Tate up at UMass in the '80s. I probably would have gone on to try for an M.F.A., but was waylaid by the burgeoning Buff Tom Era.

Well, of course he was the same. And of course, he was humble, saying something like “‘famous poet’ is an oxymoron.’” So I arranged to swing by his house, a two minute walk from my own, with a copy of Three Easy Pieces and the Exile book for good measure. I was welcomed in warmly by Dorothy and Joe (he threw the “X” in their to distinguish himself from the other Joe Kennedys in and around Massachusetts politics). We had a great visit. They are truly gracious folks. We went up to their office over the garage and Joe chose and signed three books for my kids. He and Dorothy have done well with writing and putting together books for children and text books. It turns out that another of their sons was in a Boston area band about 10 years ago called Ollie Ollie. I remember talking to a member or two of that band and getting a demo, which I really dug. So the small-town feel of Boston circled around.

Of course, this has nothing remotely to do with this week’s CoTW. But at this point, if you’ve been following for any length of time, you have come to expect such tangents. It is merely what happened to me this week. The take-away is that you never know who is living around the corner from you. Although, nowadays, it is getting harder not to know; we’re all out there.


One of the other events of my week (aside from recording some new Buff Tom tracks), was a benefit Christmas reunion of the old annual Fuzzy Christmas show at the venerable Plough and Stars pub in Cambridge. Fuzzy were a beloved Boston band that had organized a few such holiday hootenannies at pubs and clubs in Boston. This one was held to benefit Stephen Fredette, of the old, also-beloved Boston outfit, Scruffy the Cat. Stephen, being an American musician, could use some help defraying his medical costs. For those of you outside of America that haven’t already heard, if you are not employed full time by a company offering private medical insurance and get sick, you’re fucked and you have to hold benefits at pubs at $8/a head to help defray astronomically inflated medical fees.

Audrey Ryan started the night with some beautiful solo songs. After her set, while Brian Sullivan, of Dylan in the Movies, played a few songs, she requested that I do “Blue Christmas,” which I used to do at the old Fuzzy Christmas pageants in the 1990s. Well, lo and behold! What does Sully/Gooby pull out? Yes, “Blue Christmas.” Well, I wasn’t going to play it anyway. I was given the honor of playing “Baby, It’s Cold Outside,” and “Everyday is Christmas” (by Smokey Robinson) with Tanya Donelly and Chris Toppin. On the former, we switched it so that I sang the erstwhile “lady” part (“The neighbors might think/Say, what’s in this drink?”) and Top and Tanya sang the once-male beseeching answer part of the duet (“But baby, you’ll freeze out there/It’s up to your knees out there.”) It was Tanya's idea. And I liked it. It somehow fulfilled all my eighth grade fantasies.

We also had the pleasure of having Arthur Johnson, of the late great band, Come, playing drums, Elizabeth Steen on the piano, and Winston Bramen of Fuzzy on bass. Later, Arthur joined Chris Colbourn and me on stage for a mini-2/3 BT set. Arthur and his wife, Donna, left Boston years ago for Atlanta. So it was a thrill to see them.

It was a fun night all around. A blast from the past. And old fashioned 1991 Christmas. And, though I did not get to play “Blue Christmas” there, I offer it to you here and now. I segue only semi-seamlessly into the sad-assed George Jones tune (how many of his tunes are not sad-assed?), “The Grand Tour,” another cover I used to do in the 1990s. I had been discussing this only just last week at the Q Division Studios Christmas party with Winston and the great Boston young buck, Josh Buckley. So here, it seems to come out of the “Blue Christmas” narration rather easily.

A note about “No Show” Jones: Phil Aiken and I went to go see him about nine years ago in Lowell Auditorium. Now, eastern Massachusetts is notorious as being a place that most country music tours skip. It is probably the worst market for country music in the country. So it is rare to have a George Jones within 40 minutes drive of Boston.

I think I have told this story before.

But anyway, Phil and I get all excited, even if it is tempered by sober (not a word you ordinarily heat often in George Jones stories) expectations of more realistic M.O.R. performance from George. We are surrounded by people we don’t ordinarily see out around Boston music shows. These are the salt of the earth. Say a prayer for them. They constitute the 2000 people that listen to Boston’s only country station.

The opening act is some sort of Grand Ole Opry version of Steve and Edie, but they can sing. And they are backed by Nashville pros. We got a kick out of them and their shtick.

There is a short break while they ready the stage for Mr. Jones et. al. These preparations include getting the Power Point show ready to scroll on the backdrop movie screen behind the stage. We can see someone moving a cursor around on a desktop. This is going to be a real show biz-level production we can see.

Well, soon enough the lights dim and out walks this guy with a mullet and cut-off denim shorts. I swear to you he looks like David Spade in the cinema classic, Joe Dirt. He has a huge American flag (you will note that this was not long after 9/11) in one of those crotch-level flag holders that they use in parades. He takes center stage, under a spot light, standing stock still. We hear the powerful voice of George Jones, singing with clarion clarity, the “Star Spangled Banner,” our national anthem. The crowd is almost heating up to a frenzy level now, with patriotism and fandom, And no one can see George yet. Is he offstage singing?

When the lyric reaches the lines, “Oh say does that star spangled banner yet wave,” there is a slight rest in the recording (for that is all it was, a pre-recorded version), the flagman/tourbus driver starts to undulate his pelvis in a figure-eight pattern, making the flag whip in big sweeping waves. Of course, the crowd goes nuts.

And then George comes out, backed by a band in maroon button down shirts and pleated Docker khakis, like they are managers at an Applebee’s, and -- backed by the dazzling Power Point show -- they kill for over an hour of classic George Jones numbers. I don’t think they ever got to my favorite Jones song, “The Grand Tour.” See what I wrote about the song for about 10 years ago here.

But you can bet your foreign-born ass that they ended with Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to Be an American.” Hell yeah!

Happy holidays to y'all.

Blue Christmas/Grand Tour Medley mp3

Friday, December 11, 2009

Speaking of the Reach of the PTMOR Blog....

As noted in the below post, the PTMOR blog has been getting around -- to the Alps in the Italian-speaking region of Switzerland, e.g. I see, via Google Analytics -- an amazing tool, by the way -- that I have been getting page visits from 44 countries in the past month. We would love to hear greetings from all of the different places -- I see a scattered few visits from Russia, Turkey, India, Argentina, Poland, etc. Please say hello in the comments. All of you in more predictable places like the U.K, Canada, Australia, Benelux, etc., don't be shy either. I appreciate the give/take. Feliz Navidad, and happy holidays to you all.

CoTW on SwissRadio

Hey all -- I did an interview with Swiss radio about the CoTW project. You can listen in. Details below:

From Andrea Ragazzo:

Sunday, December 13th, at 15:00, and Thursday, December 17th, at 17:00 PM, both Boston time. The channel is: Rete Tre - RSI (Switzerland) (you can listen to it on streaming on this page clicking on ASCOLTA LA RADIO banner on the right).

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Cover of the Week 57

Peter Gammons announced he is leaving ESPN today after two decades at the network. One of the great benefits of playing with Buffalo Tom for just a bit longer than that, is that I have had the privilege to meet guys like Peter, people who are fans of the band. Peter, along with Jeff Horrigan and Michael Creamer founded the annual (now biannual) Hot Stove Cool Music event here in Boston. This year is the tenth anniversary, taking place January 9. I came along the second year and have been at every winter edition of the event since.

One of the jokes about Peter is that he is often claiming this player or that person is “a great human being.” The not-funny part of that is that he finds so much good in so many people. And that is because he is -- and I mean this literally -- one of the nicest guys I have gotten to know in my life.

In his press release today, forwarded on to me by Jeff this morning, Peter states, “My friend Tom Rush – who taught James Taylor and me our first guitar chords – once wrote ‘how strange it seems to walk away alone. With no regrets.’”

Well I, along with all the Hot Stove regulars, got to share the “stage” with James Taylor at a Hot Stove Cool Music show. It was a special one, as it was right after Peter had suffered an aneurysm and as a result, could not make it. None of us had known how he would come out of it. Luckily for us all, he rebounded at 100%. Things were growing so wildly with the HSCM event, what with the Sox winning the World Series in 2004 (and again in 2007), that the organizers got a bit bold, the Red Sox got more involved, and we spun it off into a summer edition, at Fenway Park. The first summer, it was magical. It was unreal playing out on the field of Fenway, near the Sox dugout.

The second summer, however, 2006, was near tragic; aside from almost losing Peter.

We had somehow convinced James to join the event at Fenway. Most people are aware of James’ local ties, a long-time resident of Martha’s Vineyard, Boston, and the Berkshires Mountains in the western part of the state, just past where we went to college at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. James is a Sox fan. So he agreed to play a few numbers at out humble show. But the rain came and stayed. Like a baseball game, there was no contingency plan, no alternate venue. The folks who paid for tickets had no recourse, as the money was going to charity. Oh, maybe the disgruntled ones got refunds, I don’t recall.

But in the true sprit of showbiz, we scrounged together a cheesy little P.A. and set up a makeshift “stage” in the concourse under the grandstand in the bowels (those familiar with Fenway will attest to its intestinal-like interior). The sonics were horrendous as were the sight-lines. But James stayed, much to our amazement. He invited the musicians into his trailer to teach us a few chords from his songs so we could do a few impromptu numbers with him. And then we took him to the stage and ran through “Steamroller Blues.” I’m pretty sure that was all we could get from him. But the lack of ego shown by him to risk his reputation as a high-level professional to get down and literally dirty with us in a venue that sounded worse than your parent’s garage, was downright laudatory.

(Photo of JT at Fenway during the 2007 ALCS, by the legendary Stan Grossfeld, Boston Globe)

This was not my first experience meeting James, nor was it the first evidence I have witnessed of his graciousness. Meeting him as a fellow musician on the stage, though, was one of the great honors I have had.

The first time I met James, I was 16. I had just moved to the Boston area. I had grown up listening to him and increasingly become a record-buying fan of his, despite my inclinations toward the Clash, the Jam, the Buzzcocks, and the Who. No, I had always had a big folky side of me that really dug singer-songwriter dudes. Later, in college, I thought I would have to de-emphasize this portion of my record collection, but many of the freaks at the hardcore, Black Flag, and Huskers shows also flew their JT flag proudly. The guy can play and the guy can sing. And he writes beautiful little songs. Plus, he is a preeminent interpreter of other people’s songs.

So, one of the first guys I met up in Medfield, Massachusetts was a total shark, a scammer and a schemer. He ended up being my buddy that year. We went to go see James in Boston when they had those Concerts on the Common (outdoors in the city's downtown park), before the snooty denizens of Beacon Hill squashed them because the noise was disturbing their privileged peace. It was one of many JT shows I have seen. At the end, my schemer pal wanted to try to get backstage, which was just an area cordoned off by a plywood fence and gate. I wanted no part of this, truth be told. But he was adamant. We waited about 10 feet away from the gate and he started brazenly asking people that were leaving the backstage for their laminated passes. I was mortified. But one guy looked at us grinning, and said, “sure, here you go,” and he and his date handed over two of the laminates. As we thanked him, I realized the guy looked a lot like James himself. As he turned and walked away, I realized it was Livingston Taylor.

We wormed or way over to a trash can filled with bottles of Miller beer on ice. As we fresh-faced sophomores opened up and drank, we looked around nervously. The area just had a few scattered grown-ups milling about. My buddy nudged me. “Hey, there he is,” pointing to JT across the way. We were in awe. But I was freaked that we were gonna get our asses kicked by some security dude and maybe even arrested for crashing the scene and underage drinking.

“Come on, man,” I begged.

“No, just wait a minute. Let’s finish the beer.”

We were finally about to leave when we noticed JT making the rounds and saying good-bye to friends and other nervous-looking fans. We stood frozen in place as he made his way over to us.

“Hey fellas, how’re you doing?” He asked, smiling.

We stammered hellos and complements on the show. He seemed genuinely and sincerely happy, no doubt getting a big kick out of our brazenness, or he was just being polite because he thought we belonged to one of the adults. Either way, he could not have been nicer to us.

So this one is for Peter and James. All of us in Massachusetts know the feeling when James sings, “the first of December was covered with snow/And so was the Turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston/Lord, the Berkshires seemed dreamlike on account of that frosting/With ten miles behind me and ten thousand more to go.”

Sweet Baby James mp3