Monday, July 27, 2009

New Boston Duo debut at PI Coffee Roasters

Rainy Sunday morning in Amesbury. God knows what's happening on the other side of the river, in the voluntary madness known as Yankee Homecoming. Seems too much to deal with at this hour, any hour this side of noon.

No matter. We're comfortably settled in at the Carriagetown edition of Plum Island Coffee Roasters, the old J Bucks, which has been brewing up the good stuff — in our case a nice and much-needed Sumatra roast with a nice body and nutty finish — since last December. It's air-conditioned, there's a pleasant vibe and, the real reason we're here, the New Boston Duo is making its area debut.

Interesting confluence of perspectives and styles at work here: You've got Amesbury guitarist George Little, who started out as a folkie, writing, among other things, funny tunes about local subjects, like Mr. Donuts, the late, lamented purveyor of trans-fats, securing his "serious" music bona-fides in classical guitar and string performance, teaming up with fellow Longy School of Music violinist Elizabeth Burke to play ... jazz?

Yup. Standards, mostly, that have been reimagined, reinterpreted. Which, of course, is the beauty of standards. And, in the NBD's case, centered around "le red hot" gipsy jazz vocabulary and vibe. They seem most at home with dark colors and minor keys, like Django's classic "Minor Swing" and "Dark Eyes," a Russian Gipsy folk song he liked so well that he recorded it three times (as "Les yeux noirs"). They'll play "Only a Paper Moon" and "All of Me," and interestingly, spin it into "Bossa Dorado," the jazz manouche classic by Dorado Schmitt, mais bein sur) They also mix it up with tunes "Georgia," "Over the Rainbow" and "All My Loving," the Fab Four hit.
It's tricky terrain, of course — instrumentation, musical mindset and, at times, a set list that invokes Reinhardt and Grappelli, titanic forces in jazz, performing well-remembered songs in new, different ways. But Little and Burke aren't shooting for cover band status: They're playing in the style, but not aping it, and bringing something of themselves, their backgrounds, to the performance. The Sunday debut showed a good energy, good communication between two players who are clearly in sync, musically.

A pleasant morning. Seems strange, though, clapping on a Sunday morning, like an affront to God or something. Our Pilgrim forebears must be turning over in their graves. Outside, the rain has stopped, the sun is blazing. It's a steam bath. Little and Burke have packed up their gear and are taking off to the other side of the river, where Homecoming is in full swing. They'll do some busking, then Little is off to Maudslay State Park, where he is performing the music for Theater in the Open's production of "The Tempest," using arrangements of surviving songs from Robert Johnson — the 16th-century lutenist, not the Delta blues singer — as well as improvisation and other works by contemporaries of Johnson.

To get a taste of what the New Boston Duo sounds like, click here.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Portraits of the artist as an old man

"Portraits Imaginaires," a late-in-life collaboration between Pablo Picasso and renowned lithographer Marcel Salinas, is a fascinating historical curiosity, a testament to the tenacity of the creative spirit. On display at Endicott College’s Center for the Arts through Aug. 21, the exhibit is a series of 29 "portraits" without real-life subjects, vibrant in execution, whimsical in content, with the artist making playful references to Rembrandt, Valasquez and, of course, himself. It is as intriguing and engaging as it is historically important since it is, essentially, the Spanish master's last work. For the full review, click here.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Liz Frame kicks off Musical Soup Festival

You never quite know what you're going to get at a Liz Frame and the Kickers concert, but that’s part of, well, the kick. Could be Merle Haggard, could be Echo and the Bunnymen. Could be Gram Parsons, from whom the band takes its name ("Out with the truckers and kickers and cowboy angels," from "Grievous Angel"), could be Billy Idol. Huh? Yeah, they cover "Rebel Yell."

The rock covers, which are filtered through a country mindset, are always interesting and sometimes utterly arresting. Take last week's show at the Millyard, where the Kickers shared the bill with Bill Plante and Friends. They opened with "Dead Flowers," which might bring a smile to your face if you're of a certain age,because the dark, tasty Stones nugget is rarely played and a perfect choice for this band. Then they followed it up with ... well, they didn't call out the tune, but it was familiar — achingly familiar, but equally elusive. Until the chorus. Then it hits you: Oh my God, Foreigner. "Urgent," the hokey megahit and staple of rock radio all those years ago.

"A guilty pleasure," says Frame, 49, who brings her band to Musical Soup, a day-long concert headlined by the Bruce Marshall Group, which will benefit Amesbury for Africa. "I loved that song when I was growing up — the lyrics, so passionate, that incredible saxophone." But it wasn't an easy sell when she pitched the song at rehearsal. "They looked at me like 'You're crazy,'" she says. But when they dug into what she had in mind — essentially a countrified rock tune that sounds true and real and not a joke tune — they were into it and, for better or worse, it's become an audience favorite. "It's evolutionary on my part, I guess," she says. "I'm strictly hardcore country ("real country," she says later, "not the stuff that's coming out of Nashville today," she says. Think Merle Haggard, Marty Stewart, Dwight Yoakum), but I like doing covers. It's got to be a good song. I've got to feel like I can do justice to it, do something interesting with it."

The Kickers have been together for two years but, for Frame, the band is a kind of comeback for a career that never fully materialized in her youth. She bounced around a lot as a kid, living a nomadic, counter-culture-tinged life with her parents. By the time she landed in Boston in the 1980s, she was ready to hang up her traveling shoes. She was 20 years old and had been playing guitar and writing songs for about a third of her life. Catching a serious country k.d. lang in full-Western gear and attitude pushed her toward a goal ("I thought, 'oh my God, I could be doing that,' she says. 'I should be doing that.'") and, a story as old asthe business itself, marriage and motherhood tugged her back.

When she moved to Newburyport in 1993 to be closer to her parents, who had abandoned the city, the dream was still alive. She played out, she made some contacts, she generated some interest but, in the end, unless you're willing to do 250 shows a year and schmooze full-time in Nashville to network — unless you're willing to eat it, breathe it, live it every minute of every day — the bigshots just won't take you seriously. "I guess I wanted to have the best of both worlds," she says. The dream faded. Life intervened. She raised her daughter, Caitlan, now 24, who graduated from Berklee College of Music, and found honest work, opening Fancy Schmancy, an artists' outlet that also sells vintage jewelry and accessories, five years ago in Amesbury (now in a Pleasant Street storefront in Newburyport) and settled in for life.

Things changed two years ago, when her mother died. "I decided life's too short to not do the things you love," says Frame. She hadn't played guitar, let alone written anything substantial, in years, but she wanted to "get out there and put something together." She started hitting the open mikes, including the one run by Lucian Parkin and Kristine Malpica, a percussionist who owned and operated Imagine Studios, at J. Bucks. Malpica, who plays a cajón percussive box, introduced her to a multi-instrumentalist John Longo, late of Crazy Maggy, and a band was born. When Lynne Taylor, long a presence on the Port music scene, saw the trio open for roots-rockers The Mystix last year at a fundraiser for the Newburyport school system, she wanted in — and the band had a bassist and vocalist. "In two years I had a band and I thought, 'Damn, not bad.'"

Right now the Kickers are playing out a couple of times a month. The gigs are about 50-50 cover to original, but Frame is writing again and bringing out old songs from her catalogue. They'll nail down a couple of Frame originals. Then, who knows, Longo may whip out his National Steel Standard for the Robert Johnson blues classic "Come on in my Kitchen," or they may switch gears and have bassist Taylor tear into a cover of "That's All Right Mama.” They have a four-song demo out, but mostly for getting gigs. There are no immediate plans to put out an album. "Right now, I'm not pushing it," Frame says. "I enjoy what I'm doing. I think I'll just let things unfold at their own pace, see where it takes us."

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: Liz Frame and the Kickers will perform in Musical Soup, a day-long music festival to benefit Amesbury for Africa on July 25 at Amesbury Sports Park, 12 Hunt Road, Amesbury. Also performing will be Ed Sheer and Mario Perrett of The Love Dogs, Ken Clark, Sweet Willie D, Abbie Barrett, the Toni Knott Band and others. The Bruce Marshall Group headlines.Tickets are $10 in advance, $12 at the gate. For advance tickets, click here. To hear the band for yourself, click here. Amesbury for Africa is a friendship-based development partnership between the town of Amesbury and its sister village of Esabalu in western Kenya. For more information, log onto

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Leslie Pasternack at the Actors Studio

Okay, so Leslie Pasternack admits to being a bit of a nerd. Of course, when you leave a paper trail of theoretical work like “Theatrical Transvestism in the United States and the Performance of American Identities: 1870-1935” and “The Bride Wielded a Razor: Images of Women on the Blackface Stage of James McIntyre and Thomas Heath,” it's probably best to get in front of the “nerd” thing and inoculate yourself against it.

Actually, “egghead” is the word she uses — po-tay-toe, po-tah-toe in our culture — and says it's something she's been working on. “I’m an egghead who wants to get out of my head and into my body more,” says the somewhat repentant stage nerd, who is teaching theater history (sigh) in the wilds of Pennsylvania and bringing her new commedia dell'arte-inspired mask drama about social outcasts and/or rejects (woo-hoo!) to the Actors Studio at the end of this month. She understands that getting out there and doing art instead of just talking about it and putting it into its proper historical and psychological context sets her up as “the bastard stepchild” of both sides of the academic/creative schism — as if the doctorate in theater history from the University of Texas and degree from the Dell’Arte School of Physical Theatre didn’t already do the trick. But she’s getting past that, too, just like she's gotten past the whole penis thing.

No, wait. That's Brighina, the cat-like character from the first act of “Clean Room” — someone who, when she first appeared in “Brighina and the Worm,” one of the pieces in Independent Submarine's play festival “1x1” four years ago, was subject to paralyzing migraine headaches that could be alleviated in one of two ways: the consumption of chocolates, or being in a room with lots of penises. During the run, Brighina would bring the play to its climax by walking through the audience and checking out the guys with a complete lack of subtlety — staring at their laps, in fact — and ultimately bringing one lucky, and probably horribly embarrassed, guy up on stage with her. Brighina’s grown since then — still dealing with some of the same issues, mind you, like how she defines herself according to the response she gets from the guys she adores and fears and mourns, like her Vietnam vet dad and boy genius brother. But in “Clean Room,” she's “not as confrontational” about, you know, the other thing. She’s cheerful, disoriented — and stuck in a waiting room of a locked ward, trying to figure out why she’s there. And Stupino, whose story is explored in the second half of the show, is a gentle janitor at the hospital. He’s lived his whole life, and takes pride in his work, as unpleasant and sometimes unsavory as it sometimes is. And while Brighina may not be as “confrontational,” don’t expect a smooth ride. Commedia dell'arte, she notes, “has a long, rich history of offending people.” The production is not recommended for children.

The two-part play premiered earlier this year at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., where Pasternack teaches drama and theater history, but it is not the first time Brighina and Stupina have been together. After makng her Boston and Newburyport debuts, she did Manhattan Theater Resources and Estrogenia Sola Voce Festival in 2005. Stupina showed up in “Good at That,” at the same two venues the next year. And in 2007, Brighina and Stupino pieces were bookends to Newburyport actor Jeff Onore's dark, funny monologue, “A Busy Guy with a Lot of Problems” in a production at Stage Left called “Dig This.” Their stories continue to grow, and Pasternack still has not closed the book on them — not yet, anyhow. She has a tentative draft for a third part. “I’m building the pieces all the time,” she says. “It may be evolving. It is by no means complete.”

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: Leslie Pasternack will perform “Clean Room,” a solo masked performance in two parts, at 8 p.m. July 31 and Aug. 1, and at 7 p.m. Aug. 2 at the Actors Studio. The Aug. 1 show will include a talkback session with the author. The production contains adult themes and may not be not appropriate for children. Pasternack will also hold two master classes in physical theater and mask performance on Aug. 4 and 11 at the Actors Studio, which is located at The Tannery Mill #1, Suite 5. For more information or reservations, call 978.465.1229 or log onto

Catching up with Dan Blakeslee

Dan Blakeslee, back in town to hang posters for his upcoming show at Rockfish, is feeling nostalgic about Newburyport: Busking in Threadneedle Alley until store owners or police chased him away, then setting up on Inn Street or the Boardwalk, and playing for hours because he loved to play. Then, at the end of the day, he would collect his reward — a little jingle-jangle for the pockets and a couple of those 25-cent Richdale hot dogs dipped into a peel-back can of Bush's beans for the belly. Good times. Or the late-summer nights when, unable to get any shuteye, he would steal away to sleepy Market Square with his guitar and play, quietly, for nobody, since the city rolls up its streets long before midnight.

These two memories have had real-life implications: One, an interest in a healthier diet, including an apparent obsession with, yuk, turkey burgers, and, two, a new album inspired by the sights and sounds of the city after it shuts down. It's called "Midnight Vines" for no immediately apparent reason. "I don't know where the name came from," he says. But the city "has a leafy, viney quality," and the album is all tied up with that indistinct image — that and the hushed feeling associated with his time here playing quietly in the Square — and even more quietly in his apartment. “Every song I ever wrote in Newburyport has been quiet,” he says.

But "Midnight Vines" won’t be hitting Port streets anytime soon. Right now, Blakeslee, who moved south (to Brighton) last year after a three-year tour, is looking north (to South Berwick, Maine) and to the 19th century as inspiration for his next project— a quietish, country-tinged collection called "Tatnic Tales," which was recorded over one weekend in June during dangerous Moxie-fueled sessions. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Well, except for the mediciny soft drink. ("Hey, we’re from Maine," he says. "We love Moxie.") The name of the album refers to a small area of recreational land bordering South Berwick, his hometown, and Ogunquit. Aside from Balancing Rock, a local landmark that will be on the CD cover when Blakeslee, a professional artist, finally captures it (“I'm not quite there,” he says), the area is mostly rural bland: forest, fields and hiking trails. But there are stories in the sleepy wilderness if you look hard enough — sometimes buried in your own backyard, like the centuries-old bottles from the old barn behind the home Blakeslee grew up in — and which turned out to have been homebase for a bootlegging operation in the 1800s. And if you can stumble into the right recording situation, the stories, the experience can be magical. And that’s what happened with “Tatnick.” Blakeslee had put together a band — that would be him and Texas Governor drummer Jim Rudolf and bassist Nick Phaneuf — to back him for his Dr. Gasp!!! tour. Gasp, of course, is Blakeslee’s alter ego during the silly season, when he takes his goofy and wildly popular Halloween show on the road.

When it came time to focus on the Tatnic material, 10 tunes that felt old, backwoods and country, he called on his Gaspmates, who had some time on their hands because the Dover-based Texas Governor is, sadly, still on hiatus. Rudolf said he had a perfect place in mind, a location that would capture the emotional weight of the material — an abandoned farmhouse from the 1800s. Blakeslee signed on, but booked time in a “real” studio, just in case.
The barn was certainly rustic, with chickens, hay bales and lots of rusty metal lying around — as well as sparrows and bats in the belfry, which they miked for the ambiance. Like “Midnight Vines,” location, forcing them to play chill and encouraging an understated intensity and lots of atmospherics — tapping on a canteen, shaking half-full gas tanks and dragging boards across the floor — plays an important part. After listening to tapes, Blakeslee abandoned all plans of a "proper" session. He knew they had nailed it. "It was one of the most moving recording experiences I've ever had," he says. "I didn’t want it to sparkle and shine. I wanted something barebones and real, like one of those old Neil Young albums — that kind of simplicity." The issue now is, can he hold on to the raw feel and not tart it up with overdubs — something he’s having a hard time resisting. He’s already lined up not one but two pedal steel guitar players.

Blakeslee’s looking at a fall release date for "Tatnick,” the recording debut for Dan Blakeslee and the Pipe Club. That name comes from the first Gasp rehearsals he had with Rudolf and Phaneuf three years ago. He showed up for rehearsal, and they were already there — wearing bathrobes and smoking pipes. He’ll be assuming his Gasp persona as Halloween nears. So the lean winter season looks like a good time to think about bringing out "Vines," but he’s not ready to commit just yet.

The Newburyport gig is a solo show and a new venue for Blakeslee. He’s filling in for Rockfish regular Artty Raynes. It's probably not the right place for the quiet stuff, but who knows? He’ll have to dig deep into the catalogue. Three hours is a lot of time to fill — long enough that they’ll probably have to feed him. Maybe, just for old times’ sake they should serve up hot dogs and beans with some sparkling Moxie.

Dan Blakeslee will perform a solo show from 8 to 11 p.m. July 18 at Rockfish, 38 State St, Newburyport. He’ll be on the third floor. For more information, call 978.465.6601 or check out

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Duke Ellington tribute at Maudslay

You can see it on his face in the YouTube video: This gig was a little outside his comfort zone. Mark Harvey is usually surrounded by an orchestra, not playing solo, and the numbers he calls out are usually way more swinging — not to disparage the nation's number-one tune. And, although he's collaborated with jazz monsters like George Russell and Gil Evans and played some big shows and festivals, this one was pretty nerve-racking: 40,000 people watching you live and God knows how many more on the tube — plenty, to be sure, seeing how it was a Red Sox home stand against the hated Yankees.

Harvey, a Boston-based trumpeter and bandleader, acquitted himself nicely in the April performance of the National Anthem at Fenway Park. Then, as he's walking off the infield, he looks straight into the camera, raises his eyebrows, quizzically, and smiles. What was that all about? He admits to feeling a bit of relief after the 1:20-minute performance. "There was the pressure factor," he says. "I was just hoping that I did a good job." The crowd seemed to think so, but Harvey will definitely be on more comfortable ground next week, when he brings the Aardvark Jazz Orchestra to the Maudslay Arts Center, where the 17-piece orchestra will perform a Salute to Duke Ellington.

An Ellington scholar who teaches jazz history at MIT, Harvey formed the Aardvark in 1973, taking the name from a miscellaneous category of the Boston Phoenix classified section. "Aardvark was the place in the classified for things that didn't fit into other sections," he says. "It was the perfect name for what I wanted to do." The band premiered more than 100 works for jazz orchestra and has released 10 albums, plays across jazz styles and traditions but, over the past two decades, has increasingly focused on Ellington — not just the big hits, like "Take the A-Train," or "Satin Doll" or "Mood Indigo," but also rarities and the sacred concerts of his later years, which attempted, with mixed critical results, to fuse liturgical musical traditions and jazz. This range is what is one of the things that first attracted Harvey to Ellington, and, he says, is one of the reasons for Ellington's continuing popularity. "He was always challenging his audience to stay fresh as listeners as he was staying fresh as a composer," he says.

The two-hour program will include favorites such as "Solitude," "Caravan" and "Come Sunday," as well as original transcriptions of "The Mooche," an Ellington piece from the 1920s, and "Daydream" by Billy Strayhorn, the long-time artistic partner of Ellington. Also on the program will be rarities like "Almost Cried," a lush, beautiful ballad, and "Pie Eyes' Blues," an up-tempo blues number from Ellington's score for the Otto Preminger-directed "Anatomy of a Murder." Ellington played the bandleader Pie Eyes in the film. The orchestra will also perform Harvey's "110 Blues," written in honor of the Ellington 110th birthday, and will play "No Walls," a Harvey piece inspired by Doctors Without Borders and Ellington’s philosophy of moving beyond categories.

Harvey is also an ordained minister, which, he admits, "may seem odd at first," he says, "but in the history of jazz, there has always been a great spiritual dimension to jazz. You hear it in Coltrane, you hear it in Ellington." Which, of course, turns the concept of "devil's music," as jazz (and before it, blues, and after it, rock) has been called. "It's not the devil's music at all," he says. "We've taken it back."

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: The Aardvark Jazz Orchestra performs a "Salute to Duke," with classics and rarities by Duke Ellington, at 7 p.m. July 18 at the Maudslay Arts Center, 95 Curzon Mill Road, Newburyport. Ticket are $20 for patio seating, or $18 for a spot on the lawn. Lawn seating is free for children 12 and under. For reservations, call 978-499-0050 or log onto

About the MAC's's summer series here.

About Aardvark Jazz Orchestra here.

Harvey playing the National Anthem here.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Truth, justice and the American way

Perhaps we were a little too hasty a while ago, when we wagged our finger at that Carriagetown desperado, the alleged disturber of the peace who hosted a party in a tony Amesbury subdivision with Gary Shane and the Detour providing the musical soundtrack — much to the consternation of at least one of his neighbors. (Can’t remember? The refresher course is here.) We were trying to make two points: One, “Murder She Wrote” is a rocking good show, and, two, you don’t argue with cops, even if you’re right, because you’ll just end up being led away in handcuffs and get your name in the newspaper the next day. Which is exactly what happened.

But in our sadly expedient grown-up conformity, we completely missed the moral center of the story, the one you should tell your kids, although you will completely regret it: That you should always stick up for what’s right, even if that means you’ve got to read about it in the papers the next day. And go to court. And go to court again. And again. You know, whatever it takes to do what’s right, to fight the power. Which is what our intrepid Prospect Street host had to do to clear his name, to shed the shame of being a putative disturber of the peace, to balance the scales that blindfolded lady (No, not Jessica Fletcher, the other symbol of Justice) has in her hands. By the time the thing went to court, nobody from the Commonwealth wanted to get too close. In the light of day, it looked, well, a little mall-coppish. It was a stinker, it had to go away. All that was left were the details — making sure it was dismissed, straight up, with no admission of guilt, because the peace wasn’t especially disturbed, and that our perpetually cash-strapped state didn’t try to soak him in court costs. Which, of course, they tried, attempting to slip in another hundred clams in costs until they got called on it. He paid the $150 in court costs and walked out of Newburyport District Court a free man.

The story is already mythic, but the part where the judge invited himself to the next party, no, that really is myth. It never happened, although it should have and will always be part of the story we tell about how one man took on the entire power structure and lived to host another party. “My saga has ended,” he says. “My slate is clean. Good has won out over evil.” And, by the way, the air conditioning has been fixed, so the windows will be closed for the next party. We’ll miss sitting on the deck, listening to the Detour plein-air, but nobody will miss the excitement from the dust-up with the law. We’re too old and responsible for that, right?

Harry Skoler: One of a kind

Harry Skoler was a regular at Maudslay Arts Center when that Newburyport venue established itself in the mid-1990s. The Haverhill clarinetist was on a creative tear at the time, releasing three critically acclaimed albums and getting out there with his road-tested quartet. Since then, the jazz musician's public profile has faded. He didn't so much retreat from the scene as he embraced family life, which now includes a college-age son and two daughters, both adopted from China. But these days he's getting back into the swing of things, hitting the road for a small tour with a very big profile, and getting the quartet back together to support "Two Ones," his first release in more than a decade. The album is already making a dent in the charts. It's one of the "most added" albums in June, according to JazzWeek’s Jazz Charts — a push predicated, most likely, on the fact that two cuts were featured as musical interludes on NPR’s "Morning Edition." Check out what the jazzman's up to at Beyond the Merrimack, our look at things happening on the other side of the river. There's a link somewhere on this page, or you can just click here.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Something about the Mystix

There’s something about the Mystix. Authenticity, of course. That goes without saying. Fronted by Jo Lily, the former Sam Deluxe of Duke and the Drivers, the original Boston party band (and a Newburyport resident), and lit up by Bobby Keyes, an in-demand session player with an encyclopedic knowledge of everything roots, the Mystix are the real deal. You get that right away, on the first listen. The band — which also features keyboardist Tom West and a powerhouse rhythm section of Martys (bassist Marty Ballou and drummer Marty Richards), local aces steeped in the scene — seemed to come out of nowhere, emerging fully formed and hitting the musical ground running. They have released three albums in as many years — each one a revelation, an excursion into an interesting and often forgotten and dusty corner of roots history.

But, no, that’s not it. It’s something more: Right band, right time, right place (that place being a vast sea of American Idol puffery) giving the the Mystix a, well, mystical aura of inevitability. You listen to them play and find yourself smiling to yourself, pondering the inexplicable connection and thinking, “I don’t know what they call it, but that’s what you do to me,” to steal a line from “Down by the Shore,” their latest album. Which they will be giving away — no, seriously — to ticketholders at their show at the Firehouse this week. Yeah, that's right — giving it away. Why? Because they’re such nice guys? Nah. Not that they’re not nice guys. But also because they figure once you get a taste, you’ll come back for more. “Seeing — and hearing — are believing” says Lily.

So, you needed an excuse to check out these guys? Well, there is is. They take the Arakelian Theater stage at 8 p.m. July 3. Tickets are $18, $15 for Firehouse members. Log onto or call 978-462-7336 to reserve a ticket. If you you don't know the music and want to dip your toes in the water, check out