HIRSH GARDNER, JOHN FANNON & THE EIGHT TRACKS
Johnny D’s, Somerville, MA
There is a good feeling in the club before the songs even start. This is the early show and it begins at 7:30 and will end a bit after 9:00. There are another two completely different bands from 10:00 until closing. A lot of people in the packed house are vets of the local music scene and are here to hear great music from these two legendary local acts. First, Hirsh and John are the well-known drummer and keyboardist for the band New England. Tonight, Hirsh plays acoustic guitar and John adds the harp. They are joined by a group of young singers called The Eight Tracks who include Hirsh’s daughter. This is a fun performance and at one point, Hirsh and John leave their backing vocalists onstage and walk around the audience playing “Conversation” without the use of the club’s p.a. system. It’s really cool when the audience sings along with them to some of their tunes including New England’s hit song “Don’t Ever Wanna Lose Ya.” Low key and a real blast.
Jon Butcher Axis opens with “Fire” by Jimi followed by their original classics “It’s Only Words” and “It Takes A New Man.” Joining the band are Adrienne Peterson Melling and Jen Thayer (The Jen Thayer Band) singing backing vocals and they are the icing on the cake. What could be better than having two women who are well suited to front their own bands vocally backing you up? As a rule, Jon Butcher on guitar and vocals, Chris Martin on bass, and John Anthony pounding have the talent, experience and catalog to rank as one of the best live acts to see this year. And tonight is no exception. Early Axis hits “Life Takes A Life,” “Ocean In Motion,” “Sentinel” and “Don’t Say Goodnight” thrill the crowd. My son Harrison really digs the band’s take on the Hendrix classic “Red House.” I tell him “this is the closest you will ever come to hearing Jimi live in 2016” as he listens to the iconic and recognizable licks and nods his head in agreement. What a great night. Do you really think there are gigs like this in Duluth? (A.J. Wachtel)
THE WESTERN DEN
Me & Thee Coffeehouse, Marblehead, MA
Me & Thee has racked up 46 years of performances and the experience shows. House booker Kathy Sands-Boehmer introduces the opening act as one-time Berklee students of Melissa Ferrick.
The Western Den, a trio of talented musicians, start with an old-English-sounding a cappella number. Then Deni Hlavinka, Chris West, and Alec Alabado find their unique and easy-listenable groove. Deni on electric piano and Chris on guitar handle most of the lead vocals, with Alec adding harmonies and muted trumpet solos scattered throughout the set. Their songs have been observed as someone having a very strange dream. The beat never seems to fall where you’d expect, the accents are unpredictable, the harmonies are gentle and beautiful. It’s like music from a country I’ve yet to hear about. Their six-song set delights the crowd and host Kathy says she’s found a new favorite band.
After the coffee and treats break, Ipswich resident Melissa Ferrick spills her hi-octane energy out to the audience. She’s very much in each moment with quick wit and a lovable friendly manner. She’s got a bagful of relationship songs filled with pain and anger. Unlike The Western Den’s music, there’s no doubt where Melissa’s beat falls. She’s one of those basic acoustic guitarists that master playing powerfully. Her songs bite hard with conviction and her performance rides on the top of a wave ready to crash in on its own weight. It’s easy to see why she teaches songwriting at Berklee. She’s got it down and her fans absolutely love her. Melissa ends the show with her latest hit that you can catch a cool video of on YouTube – “I Don’t Want You to Change” and the audience gets to sing the chorus with her. A splendid performance by a true master. (T Max)
THE GHOSTS OF JOHNSON CITY
Port City Blue, Portland, ME
We walk in on a cold winter night and find a table up front. The five band members come in and set up, looking like lumberjacks fresh from the woods in their knitted hats and flannel shirts. The waitress takes our order and the crowd trickles in until the place is packed. I wish the table behind us would shut up, they won’t stop yapping. Ahh, then it begins! The room is filled with a powerful, masculine sound by way of standup bass, harmonium, baritone ukelele and guitar, and vocals by Doug Porter, Erik Neilson, Erik Winter, and Ian Riley. Amos Libby sings lead, plays banjo and guitar, and explains the origins of the songs. Some are traditional, and many are originals which they wrote after researching tragic historical stories. I get chills from this 19th century minor-key wail of sorrow. Most of the songs are about mining tragedies, or grisly murders. At one point Amos quips, “Somebody ought to get a pencil and keep a body count.” By the end of their set over three hundred people are snuffed out. They just nail songs like “Darlin’ Corey,” made famous by Doc Watson. Their performance is riveting, I plan to see them again as soon as possible. (Kimmy Sophia Brown)
BIRDSONG AT MORNING
Coffee & Cotton, Lowell, MA
Following up the story/interview I just did with the group, I think the next best thing would be to see them live. I trek up to Lowell to this tiny coffeehouse, but I am met with only singer/guitarist Alan Williams, their stalwart leader. Darleen is sitting out tonight and their bassist, Greg, is off with his kids during school vacation week. Settling in with delicious cup o’ joe, I am treated to a restrained set of songs from the new album, A Slight Departure, as well as a cross section of earlier material. With flawless guitar playing and a hushed singing voice, the songs cascade like warm butter out of his mouth. Most of the tunes are delicate, somber, and introverted, but a few even stand right up and make your ears bug open – “Down in the Hole” and “Never to Part” are prime examples. Class-A songwriting, indeed. My only concern would be if people are unfamiliar with his sound (and the noticeable sameness in gentility), they’d start drifting off. Playing solo, Alan seems to demand beauty and precision in his material. That’s more than okay in my book – hope he still sticks with that. Save the arrangements of “bombast and chemistry” for the group. In which case, maybe a return to the coffeehouse during their band residency should do the trick. Good stuff! (Harry C. Tuniese)
The Beehive, Boston, MA
Located in the affluent South End this club is a restaurant/bar with little candlelit round tables downstairs around a small stage. It’s very romantic and the perfect place to hear music while sipping cognac in the dim lighting. Tonight, Threadbear Fynn (a joke on a musician’s pay grade and the keyboardist’s last name) consists of Bruce Bears on keys and Mark Texeira behind the kit, both from The Duke Robillard Band, and local blues legend and manager of Menotomy Bar & Grill, Jesse Williams on upright bass. Joining this tight crew for cameos are Sonya Rae Taylor on vocals and guitar and Ryan Taylor also on guitar. Both are solid six-stringers. They are Berklee grads who went down to Nashville and are now back gigging on the scene. This is a nice change cause usually the band plays instrumentals only and are guitar-less. She has a sweet voice and her phrasing reminds me a bit of Bonnie Raitt. Ryan’s guitar work is very good and adds another layer to their sound. Speaking of sound, Dennis D’Angelo behind the board does a great job and everything is clean and clear. The group is like Medeski, Martin and Wood. Roots Fusion to the max. I really like hearing “Blind, Crippled & Crazy” by O.V. Wright, “Trouble” by Stanley Turrentine and original tunes “Gulf Stream” by Jesse Williams, and “Sneaky Child” and “No Mas” by Bruce Bears. You can tell that they’re into jazz cause they are all reading charts as they play and they all perform with their eyes closed. Almost instinctively. Sometimes each musician will get quiet and let another solo loudly. Picture the drums and the keys becoming low and sparse as the upright bass becomes louder and plays lead. I think it’s pretty cool and all the tables full of young couples think so too. (A.J. Wachtel)
Great Scott, Allston, MA
I came to Great Scott tonight with a preconceived notion of Palehound. After relentlessly listening to their latest release, Dry Food, for the last couple of months, I’m convinced that they are descended from the Liz Phair branch of indie rock.
Two or three songs into their set, I realize that there is a lot more Boston in this Boston band than I first credited them with. Suddenly I hear Tanya Donnelly (Throwing Muses), and Kay Hanley (Letters to Cleo). Oddly, in the vocals, I hear a female version of Frank Black and J Mascis. With pedigree like that, how can they go wrong? Their music is a classic, guitar-rock mix of ’80s/’90s indie rock.
As the set charges on, the already crowded room starts to become cramped as the sold out crowd begins to swell in advance of headliner, Torres. By the end of their set the room is a sweaty mess. Ellen Jesse Dawood’s bedazzled whammy bar swings in the spotlights, shooting light into the crowd. Their set and stage banter become a bit frenetic towards the end, as the band worries aloud about their impending drive to South Carolina, which will take them directly through the winter’s worst blizzard.
They forego their encore in favor of bolting from the club to try and beat the storm. They leave everyone in the room wanting more but wishing them a safe journey through the snow. (George Dow)