Monday, April 13, 2009

Sitting Still for Tift Merritt

A few years back Tift Merritt made a big debut with her album Bramble Rose, followed that with Tambourine, and earned a Grammy nomination. Maybe you remember Good Hearted Man. And then she disappeared for a few years until she showed up Sunday night at Club Passim in Cambridge.

And where has she been? She says that her latest songs came out of spending some time living in Paris, in an apartment with a piano in a cool part of town. But it turns out Paris is also a city of sports bars, and she didn’t realize there would be one at the end of her street. Imagine an artistic soul going all the way to Paris to find herself living next to a sports bar.

What became clear from her show is that Tift Merritt is a live wire. She had a little trouble adjusting to the quiet crowd at Club Passim. Even with the injection this year of alcohol - wine and beer from Cambridge Brewing Co. - into the already cramped room, it is still a listening room. Once she settled in, it was a great show.

There is a disjunction from the Tift Merritt you see in the highly polished music video, such as for Broken and the Tift Merritt you see perform live, such as in this video for Another Country. Her latest album, Buckingham Solo, recorded live in England last November, is coming out in June.

And what else has been going on? Tift said something about getting recently married. Whether she married the good hearted man she didn’t say. Tift has also been recoding interviews with other musicians for a show called The Spark on Texas Public Radio. And she had an interesting story about performing the national anthem for an Obama rally in North Carolina the day before the election. Now we know how Obama carried North Carolina.

"Love is another country, and I want to go."

Friday, April 10, 2009

Blackness at the Bull Run

I was hanging out around 11pm on a Friday night in Boston in the basement of the Good Life where my good friend and mash-up artist DJBC was spinning. It’s the end, officially a week past the end, of what has been a very long winter. He’s got a crowd of young financial district types, some of whom have been home from work and some of whom haven’t. The place is crowded, and I’m just kind of huddled up in a dark corner because I can’t hear much of anything over the din.

That‘s when one of our friends asks me, “What are you up to these days?”

I say, “Well, I’m driving out of the city to see a country bluegrass cover band.”

He asks “What king of music do they cover?”

I say, “Country and bluegrass, you know with a guitar, and a bass, and maybe a fiddle or mandolin or banjo or something like that.”

“Yes, I get that,” he says, “but what type of music do they cover?”

I give him a look and say “country and bluegrass.” And I want to say “both types” like the guy in Blues Brothers (that guy was into country and western, for the record, in case you are confused too). I also want to say “roots” but I know that’s not going to help.

But he just keeps asking, “Do they cover classic rock songs, or punk, or techno, or hip hop, or …” I see that he doesn’t have it in his head that someone in a roots band would actually play country or bluegrass music.

And so I try to close it out with, “You know Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, the Louvin Brothers….” I can see on his face he’s still not getting it. “… Allison Kraus, Gillian Welch.”

“Yes,” he says, “she’s great. That will be great.”

Obviously he’s seen the Coen brothers movie Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? I make a mental to always start there when talking to a hipster about roots music. I want to say something about who I’m actually going to go see but it seems hopeless. I just retreat to my darkened corner.

So on Saturday (March 28, 2009) I drive out to Shirley to the Bull Run Restaurant. It was a cloudy night and as the sun set the darkness settled in. In the city it never truly gets dark. Out in the Johnny Appleseed country past Route 128 and past 495, it gets dark. Pitch black. But that was OK because I had come out to see Amy Black & the Red Clay Rascals.

Amy Black brings an authenticity to roots music that belies her Concord, Massachusetts upbringing and her high tech day job. It turns out she is a preacher’s daughter, with grandparents in Alabama. She and the great band she has put together played a long set list that included:

Hound Dog (Etta James version)
Last Fair Deal (Robert Johnson)
Ain’t No Sunshine (Bill Withers)
Big Road (Bonnie Raitt)
Big River (Johnny Cash by way of Rosie Flores)
Good Hearted Woman (Waylon Jennings)
Darling Cory (traditional folk)
Love Me Like a Man (Bonnie Raitt)

Other notable songs performed included Move it On Over (Hank Williams), The Angels Rejoiced (Louvin Brothers), Folsom Prison Blues (Keb Mo version of the Johnny Cash classic), Rueben (Be Good Tanyas), and Orphan Girl (Gillian Welch). Amy’s little sister Corrie Jones is billed as an “occasional Rascal” on background vocals. She did more than that. What I would give for an .mp3 of Corrie singing I Still Miss Someone, one of my favorite Johnny Cash songs.

I don’t want to give the impression there are few authentic roots musicians from New England. Fiddle player Rich Hamilton from Jaffray, NH opened the show with a great 45 minute set. He played the old time mountain music like he was from Appalachia. Now that I think about it, the Appalachian Mountains do run through New Hampshire. Rich also played with the Red Clay Rascals through much of the show. They did a great version together of Man of Constant Sorrow.

The Bull Run Restaurant in Shirley is a historic tavern on the old road from Boston to Albany, New York. If you believe the locals, minutemen mustered from here for the Battle of Lexington and Concord. And there may have been a bar fight during the Civil War as to whether the North or South would win the Battle of Bull Run. You can tell from the worn floor and the old fireplace that the stories might not be true, but they’ve been telling them here for a long, long time.

The music venue is in separate building, there are actually two music venues. The bigger one is one the first floor. It’s a large hall filled with at least of score of large round banquet tables that don’t even begin to fill the space. We were seated with some guys from New Hampshire, who talk like they know all the Cambridge roots venues – Toad, the Lizard Lounge, Club Passim, the Cantab– better than we do. The regulars told us they come to the Bull Run for the music. We thought the food was good too. It was easy to have a conversation.

The drive back to the city went quickly. But the fog had settled in, and we couldn’t see the city lights until we got back into it.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Iowa Declared a Gay Marriage Mecca

Following a unanimous Iowa Supreme Court ruling finding no compelling reason to deny gay people the right to marry, the State of Iowa has been declared a "gay marriage Mecca" by Congressman Steve King (R).

The Iowa ruling takes effect April 24, 2009. Iowa joins Massachusetts and Connecticut as one of three states in the U.S. that now allow same-sex marriage. Same-sex marriage is in a legal limbo in California, where voters passed an initiative last fall to overturn a California Supreme Court decision to allow it. Same-sex civil unions are permitted in Vermont, New Jersey, and New Hampshire. Domestic partnership laws are available to same-sex couples in Oregon, Washington, the District of Columbia, Maine, and Maryland.

Congressman King is opposed to same-sex marriage, and wants the Iowa legislature to pass a Marriage Amendment to the Iowa Constitution to reinstate a 1998 definition that marriage is between one man and one woman. He also wants the legislature to enact marriage license residency requirements, apparently fearing that an influx of gay tourists throwing wedding bouquets and rice or birdseed may upset the corn crop.

King further declared, "If judges believe the Iowa legislature should grant same-sex marriage, they should resign from their positions and run for office, not legislate from the bench." But King himself is a member of the U.S. Congress. No word yet on whether he intends to take his own advice and resign to run for the Iowa legislature. In fact, the general thinking has been that he intends to run for Governor against the incumbent Democrat Chet Culver.

Iowa has long exhibited an enlightened contrariness on matters of civil rights, with the Iowa Supreme Court refusing to enforce a contract for slavery in 1839, striking down segregation efforts in 1868 and 1873, and admitting women to the practice of law in 1869. All in keeping with Iowa's motto: "Our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain."

The six Iowa couples who brought the lawsuit include a nurse, business manager, insurance analyst, bank agent, stay-at-home parent, church organist and piano teacher, museum director, federal employee, social worker, teacher, and two retired teachers.