Monthly Archives: July 2009

A NOVEL IDEA Joe Pernice

The
acclaimed Pernice Brother takes his new book on the road – by singing it.

 

BY JAKE CLINE

 

Joe Pernice answers the phone after four rings, and his
voice is deeper and grainier than the soft, comforting instrument heard on all
those Pernice Brothers and Scud Mountain Boys albums, works that have brought
this Massachusetts-born singer-songwriter a healthy number of fans and perhaps
an even greater level of respect. It’s the night before Pernice’s birthday, and
he’s admittedly exhausted at the end of what he simply describes as “a long
day.” Traces of his Bay
State accent punctuate
the fatigue and the distance he’s put between himself and his beloved commonwealth.
You see, this loyal son of Massachusetts, who
once titled an album after the state and set his new novel there, is now a
resident of Toronto.

 

“I married a Canadian,” Pernice states plainly when asked
how someone who has been so closely associated with one place could now be
living far away in another. “When we first got married, I knew we wanted to
have a kid and we wanted to have her family around. My wife has dual
citizenship and her family is in Toronto.
And because I was traveling a lot with the band, I figured it was a fair
trade-off [to move here].”

 

That was about four years ago, and even though Pernice has
long since “settled in” to life in Canada, where he and his wife are raising
their 3-year-old son, Massachusetts has never been far from his mind or his work.
In It Feels So Good When I Stop, the
exceptional novel Riverhead Books will publish August 4, the area in and around
Cape Cod is as much of a character as the unnamed,
25-year-old protagonist. The region serves as something of a hiding place for
the narrator, who in a belated case of cold feet, flees New York the day after
his marriage and heads for the East Falmouth house owned by his sister and brother-in-law,
whose own union is one signed legal document away from being over. Trading one
bad situation for another, the narrator quickly realizes he can’t even disappear
properly. With tourist season ended and the town no longer “a madhouse of
vacationers,” he’s as obvious as a Yankees fan at Fenway Park.
“Hiding out on Cape Cod did not exactly
qualify me for ‘off the grid’ status,” he dryly notes. “If Jocelyn wanted to
find me, she could.” 

 

That Pernice would set his novel in Massachusetts hardly warrants an inquiry.
But the novelist pauses to consider why he placed this story – with its timeless
themes of twentysomething anxiety, fear of commitment and human fallibility –
in the mid-1990s, even though references to the age of grunge, Whitewater and pre-millennial
jitters are few.

 

“That’s a good question,” Pernice says. “I think that’s the
setting I needed for me to think back to that mindset of being in your twenties
and acting erratically. It took me back to that time. I felt like I had a
better handle on the parlance of that time.”

 

At that time, of course, Pernice was performing and
recording with the Scud Mountain Boys, a country-influenced band that recorded
for Seattle’s
Sub Pop Records, which makes a cameo in It
Feels So Good When I Stop
when it expresses halfhearted interest in the
narrator’s barely there band, the Young Accuser, an overture that the character
meets with typical incredulity.  “What
the fuck is this?” he says after first reading a letter from the label. Later,
he wishes “it had been even more discouraging.”

 

Pernice makes clear in the novel and in conversation that
his protagonist does not believe he is too good for Sub Pop, the one-time home
of bands such as Nirvana and Soundgarden, or too dense to recognize a great
opportunity when one presents itself. Quite the opposite: The narrator is
simply a confused young adult scared of life and unsure of his place in it,
even as he engages in seemingly grown-up acts: getting married, caring for his toddler
nephew and befriending a lonely, grieving mother. Pernice does acknowledge,
however, that the character almost didn’t become the relatable, sympathetic
person found in the novel.

 

“I got to a point where my character was becoming something
other than what I wanted him to be,” the author says, explaining that he had to
toss out 12,000 words to set the narrator straight. “That was a drag. I was a
good chunk into the book and I realized that the character was becoming too
cool, too knowing. I was giving him too many dimensions. I wanted my character
to be a kind of fuck-up, but capable of real thoughtfulness and real feeling.”

 

That side of his nature comes through in his developing
relationships with his 18-month-old nephew, Roy; the assorted townies he encounters
in Cape Cod; and Marie, a tattooed, aspiring
filmmaker who mourns her child equally through alcohol and art. Together and
individually, these people help him become “part of the order of things,” which
Pernice deftly suggests is an enviable place to be.

 

Music, meanwhile, provides succor to the narrator as often
as it spurs regret. A seemingly endless number of musicians and song titles are
referenced or listened to in the book, among them Patti Smith’s “Frederick,”
Nick Drake’s “River Man,” Peter Frampton’s “Baby, I Love Your Way” and the
Pogues’ “A Pair of Brown Eyes.” In one scene, a couple of characters even have
an argument about the authenticity of Mel Tormé.

 

“These songs mean a lot to me,” Pernice explains, “and I
wanted to make them mean a lot to someone else. They popped up as I was
writing. I’d hear something and say, ‘Fuck, I have to get that in.’ But I
didn’t go in with a set of songs.”

 

Pernice will perform many of these songs during a two-month tour
to promote the book and a soundtrack album of the same name. The tour will open
Aug. 5 at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge, Mass., and return Pernice to Toronto Sept. 24 with an appearance at the
Dakota Tavern. (A complete list of dates can be found at www.Pernicebrothers.com/tour.  The soundtrack, which Pernice will release on
his own Ashmont Records on August 4, features him reading brief excerpts from
the novel and performing 10 songs mentioned in it, including Sebadoh’s “Soul
and Fire,” Sammy Johns’ “Chevy Van” and Todd Rundgren’s “Hello It’s Me.” It
also offers a real-life version of “Black Smoke, No Pope,” the Young Accuser
track that catches the attention of Sub Pop in the novel.

 

“I think there are 25 references to songs in the book, at
least,” Pernice says. “We obviously couldn’t get them all on the CD, but I
might want to play most of them [on the tour]. I’ll read about three sections
from the book and play some tunes in between each one.”

 

During the tour, he’s also likely to field questions about
the presence of a fellow Massachusetts
songwriter in the book. In an amusing episode, the narrator and his future wife
attend a show by Sebadoh frontman and Dinosaur Jr bassist Lou Barlow, with whom
they share mutual acquaintances. The appearance is far from forgettable: Barlow
bad-mouths a former boyfriend of Jocelyn, recounts how he learned “to suck the
nitrous out of these big industrial canisters” and unleashes a fusillade of
expletives on two guys who won’t shut up during his set.

 

“I haven’t heard what he thinks about it,” Pernice says. “I emailed
him and asked him for permission to use him in the book. He e-mailed me back
and said yes, but said he didn’t want to know what it was about. I told him,
‘You’re a decent guy in the book.’ He emailed me again and said, ‘You can make
me a dick.’ But I think he comes off as a decent character.”

 

In Pernice’s decidedly raw but warmhearted novel, he’s not
the only one who does.

 

A BLURT-SIZED FISTFUL OF METAL

This is
your brain on Diagonal, Antigama, Zoroaster, Children, Buried Inside, Plague
Bringer – any questions?

 

BY KENNY HERZOG

 

Somewhere in between the bloated cries of emo frontmen and
black metal’s bludgeoning blast beats, a crop of metal bands has arisen that
bridges the gap between the 1990s’ post-hardcore-cum-grind breakout (from
Napalm Death up through Botch) and an unexpectedly acclaimed resurgence of
third-wave thrashers and bashers (The Sword, Mastodon et al). They’re bands
that satisfy the need for heavy music with greater intellect than screaming,
adolescent laments, while eschewing the one-note doom-and-gloom-saying of
Norwegian nihilists. Some, like England’s
Diagonal, harken back to the woodwind-wielding days of Jethro Tull and add a
proggy twist to their main course of brutal riffs and herky-jerky anti-rhythms.
Others, such as Buried Inside, take the legacy of epic sludge-crafters like
Neurosis and channel it through cinematic dynamics.

 

The following six bands are-in some shape, form or
arrangement-helping to evolve metal beyond its boundaries, while speaking
directly to both its cornerstone and niche influences and avoiding any
high-minded alienation of the genre’s loyal enthusiasts. But most importantly,
they will blow your minds as readily as your speakers.

 

***


DIAGONAL

www.myspace.com/diagonalband

Hometown: Brighton, UK

Latest
Album
: Diagonal

Favorite Metal Band Ever (According To
Saxophonist/Woodwind Player Nick “Glenn” Whittaker):
“It’s
hard to beat Slayer in their day for fury, propulsion and mood.”

 

Deeply
British-and in accordance, often reminiscent of Deep Purple-Diagonal are an
anomaly amongst anomalies. The ensemble of multi-instrumentalists adopts a Mars
Volta-like instinct for indiscriminate influencing-mining, but filters it
through a distinctly UK
sausage tube of pastoral psychedelia, King Crimson-worthy jazz-prog and
Sabbath-siphoning, atmospheric heaviness. In short, it’s a fucking head trip. “We’ve
always just done what we’ve done,” explains Whittaker. “I think you have to do
it that way-whatever feels right for you.” The chaotic typhoon of sounds that
makes up their debut, self-titled full-length ultimately come less from a
desire to be difficult than an impulse not to cast aside anything that has
value, like a mechanic making use of all spare parts.  Or as Whittaker puts it, “We’ve been inspired
by the collected listenings of seven music obsessed men who have investigated
many varied sounds over the years.”

 

 

ANTIGAMA

www.antigmama.net

Hometown: Warsaw, Poland

Latest
Album
: Warning

Favorite
Metal Band Ever (According To Guitarist Sebastian Rokicki):
“There is too much good music on the globe to
just concentrate on one band for a lifetime.”

 

It’s not entirely shocking that Warsaw’s
severe conditions of Warsaw
would produce a pummeling slab of misanthropy like Warning, their second album for Relapse. Like Napalm Death in a
choreographed street fight with Dillinger Escape Plan, Antigama (whose four
members earn their metal are all either menacingly shorn-skulled or facially
pierced) are the new, more muscular breed of second-generation grindcore
aficionados. Although in reality they’ve been slugging it out in the harsh
winds of their homeland for almost a decade, which has also left them with a
liberated indifference to how their music is perceived in the larger
heavy-music zeitgeist. “The most
important thing for us as a band is that we make this music especially for
ourselves and for our own sake,” says Rokicki. “We like to feel that we are a
part of different musical communities and that’s a great thing about this band.”

 

 

ZOROASTER

www.myspace.com/thezoroaster

Hometown: Atlanta, Georgia

Latest
Album
: Voice Of Saturn

Favorite
Metal Band Ever (According To Vocalist/Guitarist Will Fiore):
“Bad News!!!”

 

While their hometown has been predominantly known in recent
years for crunk, the psych-metalists of Zoroaster are fighting for a bit of
regional repute. Given their self-proclamation that Voice Of Saturn brings to mind “dinosaurs taking a shit” (actually
a cheeky reference to a real Terminal Doom Explosion review), one gets the gist
that the album is fairly monstrous and sits around steaming for a while before
taking on its ultimate form. And that the guys possess a sense of humor
characteristic of modern-day model bands, even if such tomfoolery was once
anathema to the genre’s aggressively nonplussed mystique. “Any band trying to
come off that way these days would definitely have their work cut out for
them,” offers Fiore. “You could easily slip up and be videotaped helping an old
lady across the street and lose all your “evil points.”  Plus, with all
the crazy fucks out there killing their kids and cutting people’s heads off, I
don’t care how evil you look playing your guitar, it’s not that terrifying.”

 

 

CHILDREN

www.myspace.com/childrenofthemushroom

Hometown: New York, New
York

Latest
Album
: Hanging At The End
Of The World

Favorite
Metal Band Ever (According To Guitarists Jonny Ollsin and Skyler Spohn):
“Mercyful Fate.”

 

Of all the bands on this list,
Children (not to be confused with Finland
death-metal lords Children Of Bodom) skew closest to speed-metal traditions,
not hugely surprising given their pedigree as ex-members of lightning-riff
enthusiasts like Early Man. But the five epic tracks on Hanging At The End Of The World are an
inspiringly loose extension of the jam sessions that first brought them
together. “We just like fast music, and if it makes the hair on
our arms stand up when we figure out a cool riff, then that means we like it,”
says Spohn. “And then we laugh about it for a second and try to figure out how
we can make it into a song.” And what’s ultimately emerged on seven-minute
rippers like the “Nuclear Bummer,” despite the casual understatement of its
title, is a slacker-improvisational spirit that occasionally dances with Ride The Lightning-worthy complexity. It’s
a contrast that might have something to do with the hybrid of influences that
have shaped Children’s sonic offspring. “It [used to be] punk/Maiden, now its’
punk/Halen,” says Ollsin. “But only cause I don’t really listen to Maiden
anymore.”

 

 

BURIED
INSIDE

www.buriedinside.com

Hometown: Ottawa, Ontario,
Canada

Latest
Album
: Spoils Of Failure

Favorite
Metal Band Ever (According To Bassist Stephen Martin):
“Metallica
circa the ’80s. In reality, that band was done September 27, 1986.”

 

While their contemporaries from cities like New York and Chicago
are constantly grappling with pressure-cooker scrutiny and oversimplified
categorization, Buried Inside has-apropos of their name-remained comfortably
cocooned in the Great White North. “Being a band [for] nearly 12 years, we’ve
seen many flashes in the pan,” says Martin. “Shape-shifting is not something
that ever crossed our minds. If it were I doubt we’d still be around.” And while
they may not have entirely restructured their DNA, Spoils Of Failure is a substantial ascent to the plateau of
post-grind euphoria that bands like Isis have
dabbled with, but sans the uber-arty pretense. Martin acknowledged the 1990s
hardcore scene was “clearly an early influence,” but that at this point the
group is single-mindedly determined to be their own muse, because as he puts
it, “Ultimately, you can’t really worry about outside perceptions.”

 

 

PLAGUE
BRINGER

www.plaguebringer.com

Hometown: Chicago, Illinois

Latest
Album
: Life Songs In A Land Of Death

Favorite
Metal Band Ever (According To Vocalist/Guitarist/Programmer Ratajczak):
“Without
Metallica, I would have never gone to the ‘dark side.'”

 

Sort of like Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Taste-era Ministry on metabolic
death-thrash steroids, the two-man, blast-beat machine that is Plague Bringer
represents one of the most innovatively avant updates on a prototypical
black-metal onslaught. Live percussion is replaced entirely by drum  machines, freeing Ratajczak (who’s done work
behind the decks for such unlikely artists as Modest Mouse) and fellow
axe-wielder Kasparian to focus on punishing guitar tones, growling vocal
overdubs and a sound that mutates into something nightmarishly human and
despite its industrial underpinnings. “Contrary to what many other
‘drum machine bands’ seem to do, I’ve attempted to keep the drum programming
somewhat realistic sounding throughout,” says Ratajczak.  “I have always
been put off by those extreme blasts… I’ve tried to remain a metal band,
allowing other influences in, but staying true to the vision.”

 

 

[Pictured, above:
detail from Zoroaster
Voice of Saturn record sleeve]

 

WHO’S YOUR DADDY? Will Kimbrough & Tommy Womack

As they say in Music City USA,
 it all begins with a song – and these Nashville cats got songs,
in spades.

 

BY REV. KEITH A. GORDON

 

Back when you kiddies were still watching Saturday morning
cartoons in your spidey PJs and eating chocolate-frosted sugar bombs by the
boxful, two nice young men from Kentucky, and
another from Alabama,
were playing in a critically-acclaimed rock ‘n’ roll band called the bis-quits.
Although these three gents had spun a wonderful collection of intelligent
garage-pop with blues-rock overtones and a soupcon of country twang, they were
soon forgotten, lost in the enormous commercial shadow of a bunch o’ guys from
Seattle named Kurt, Eddie, Chris and their, well, kinda grungy, flannel-clad friends.

 

Fast forward 16 years, and you’ll find Daddy, which is,
really, mathematically two-thirds of the bis-quits playing with some (talented)
pals. Over the past decade-and-a-half or so, the three nice young men – Will
Kimbrough, Tommy Womack, and Mike “Grimey” Grimes – have pursued
various fates in and out of the music biz. Grimes played for a while with
alt-country cut-ups Bare Jr. before escaping the industry’s clutches only to
open his much-lauded record store in Nashville (Grimey’s Music on Eighth – tell
’em the Reverend sent ya!).

 

Kimbrough has toyed around with a critically-acclaimed solo
career that has yielded four solid albums (and an EP), but his real
bread-and-butter has been touring and recording as a guitar-for-hire for folks
like Jimmy Buffett, Rodney Crowell, Todd Snider, and others. Womack, on the
other hand, has put his experience with the bis-quits and, previously, the much
beloved Kentucky cult band Govt. Cheese, to good use as a whipsmart, slightly
neurotic, constantly embattled solo troubadour, also with four acclaimed studio
albums (and a live disc) under his belt.

 

Daddy began as a one-off between friends and former bandmates,
their live 2005 album At the Woman’s Club documenting two nights’ shows in Frankfort,
Kentucky. As these things are
wont to do, demand for Daddy and the band’s growing popularity has resulted in For a Second Time, the official and
righteous Daddy studio debut. A ten-song collection of various Kimbrough and
Womack originals and a handful of collaborations between the two (and one
excellent total band effort), For A
Second Time
may well be the best collection of pure music-making that
you’ll hear come out of Nashville this year.

 

As they say in Nashville,
it all begins with a song – something forgotten long ago by the industry’s
Music Row – and Kimbrough and Womack are two of the best wordsmiths ever
snubbed by the biz. Both songwriters have been around the block a time or three
and suffered through the indignities and ignorance of men in suits with
corporate smiles, and their experience shines through their songs. The semi-biographical
“Nobody From Nowhere,” for instance, sounds like a John Hiatt outtake
circa Slow Turning, but with Kimbrough’s
slinky fretwork and great harmony singing between Kimbrough and Womack. The
song perfectly sums up the isolation of growing up in the rural South, where
everything is miles away from anything else, and dreams of the big-time are
tempered by simple pleasures.

 

Much of the rest of For
A Second Time
follows a similar tack, Kimbrough and Womack swapping lead
vocals on songs that are built around the former’s tempered optimism and the
latter’s wry sense of humor and joyful cynicism. “Early To Bed, Early To
Rise” is Womack’s advice to a younger generation, an
only-slightly-tongue-in-cheek warning about the rat race from a man that has
lived it firsthand. The New Orleans-tinged “Wash & Fold”
possesses all the funky soul of the Meters, Kimbrough mouthing a sly come-on to
a young lovely that is equal parts Ray Davies and Aaron Neville.

 

Of course, the Daddy guys also recognize a good song when
they hear it, and their loving cover of ’60s-era folkie Mike Millius’ “The
Ballad of Martin Luther King” provides the sort of intricate wordplay that
Womack excels at spitting out. The ode to the African-American hero is
especially ironic provided the band’s deep-rooted Dixie
sound, but these boys have always embraced equality in all things – especially
music – and the song’s folkie origins are amped up with squalls of harmonica,
bluesy guitarwork, and more than a little introspection.

 

The full band collaboration “I Went To Heaven In A
Dream Last Night” is a syncopated, almost stream-of-consciousness tale of
Womack’s brush with the almighty that evinces a dark sense of humor, manic
vocals, and more great throwaway lines and imagery than we can recount here
(although “a funny thing happened on my way to the grave, I didn’t burn
out and I didn’t fade away, my heart kept beating until the end of the
ride” is a pretty damn funny line). The band – which additionally includes
Paul Griffith on drums, Dave Jacques on bass and John Deaderick on keys – backs
it up with a funky-cool, twang-jazz soundtrack with lighter-than-feather cymbal
brushing, scraps of honky-tonky piano, and Kimbrough’s piercing six-string
notes. “He Ain’t Right” is another semi-autobiographical look back at
childhood and what it’s like to be smalltown different, the lyrics pounded home
above a muscular rhythm, bee-sting fretwork, and potent, gospel-tinged
keyboards.

 

Will Kimbrough and Tommy Womack bring the best out of each
other, creatively, and with nearly two decades of friendship and shared musical
history to work off of, it should come as no surprise that they’re able to come
up with gem after gem. The three background guys in Daddy are no slouch,
either, but rather talented pros able to cut loose from their day jobs and spin
some fun, complex, and satisfying music behind their charismatic frontmen. Altogether,
For a Second Time adds up to more
than the sum of the individual band member’s talents; Daddy the best band that
you’ve never heard (yet).

 

 

Daddy on the web: www.myspace.com/daddytheband

 

[Photo Credit: Joshua Black Wilkins]

 

ROAD-DOGS, HEAT, AND VINTAGE GEAR: Wiyos on the Dylan/Nelson/Mellencamp Tour

Our Blurt correspondent gets the tour opp of
a lifetime.

 

BY CARL
HANNI

 

July 27, outside Duck, Outer Banks, NC: Leaving
New York City four days ago in a driving rain, the signs of rock ‘n’ roll start
immediately, with billboards for Creed and AC/DC. If this is a signifier of some
sort, it’s a bit obtuse: we’re off for 2 1/2 weeks of touring, and there will
be some rock ‘n’ roll, but little of the hard-rock varietal.

 

I’m
here on a 17 day run with The Wiyos, NY-based vaudevillian string band
extraordinaire. They are booked to play 28 out of 33 dates as the opening act
on the Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson and John Mellencamp summer tour, which started
in Sauget, IL,
July 2, and finishes in Stateline,
NV, August 16. With a couple of
exceptions, the tour is playing minor league ball parks/stadiums all across the
country. I jumped on the tour five days ago, in Lakewood, NJ, and will ride it
through the show in Dallas (really Grand Prairie) TX August 7, as Wiyos tour
manager, publicist, merch wrangler and all-around boy-Friday. I’m delighted to
be here in such fine company and out of my scorching home base of Tucson. Not that it’s
much cooler out here, as I soon realize…

 

The
Wiyos played to a remarkably enthusiastic bunch of die-hards the other evening at
First Energy
Park in Lakewood, bunched up in front of the stage
trying for some respite from the downpour, faces framed by a rainbow coalition
of colored ponchos and soggy cowboy hats. The Wiyos have 1/2 hour every tour
stop, from 5:30 till 6 pm, to play, make new fans, greet friends from the stage
and put in a plug for their new CD. Then there’s a quick 10 minute turnaround
before Willie Nelson takes the stage for an hour, followed by John Mellencamp,
followed by Bob Dylan. The exact same routine every show, different venue, for
6 weeks. The whole production is as smooth and tight as a long-running Broadway
show or a military parade. This is a professional operation in every possible
detail.

 

After
three shows (Lakewood, NJ;
Aberdeen, MD,
outside of Baltimore; and Norfolk, VA),
truisms and patters quickly manifest. For one thing, the catering is
incredible. Cast and crew are fed lunch and dinner every day, and it’s had to
overstate how great the spread is. Copious, endless amounts of tasty, healthy
and inventive food, drinks and deserts appear twice daily, including fruit,
cheeses, coffee and teas, soup, salads, cold drinks, multiple deserts,
vegetarian fare, vitamin supplements and more. I mean, really.

 

So
far, the crowds have really been digging The Wiyos. They generally play to
600-800 concert-goers in front of the stage, with thousands more filing in and
spread around the bleachers. Most in the crowd may not know who they are coming
in, but they sure do going out, and CD and t-shirt sales have been steady. The
Wiyos, versed in everything from busking on street corners to playing to
sit-down crowds in theaters, know how to work a crowd, and needless to say they
are making the most of a fortunate situation that most other acts would love to
find themselves in. They do what they need to do and what they have been hired
to do: connect with the crowd and warm them up, give them a taste of what they
are all about (think a 1930’s vaudeville act crossed over with a modern take on
old-timey music), then bust everything off the stage lightening fast and make
way for Willie. Come back the next day and do it again.

 

For
the most part everyone on the tour (to one degree or another) is friendly,
helpful and supportive. Production and promotion staff, stage crews, sound and
security are all working like clockwork. As the next act up after The Wiyos, we
see lots of Willie’s people, especially his stage crew and harmonica player
Mickey Raphael, a prince of a guy. Members of Mellencamp’s and Dylan’s band
have been stopping by to chat and talk shop. The Wiyos definitely have a curiosity
factor going for them: who are these young lads with the vintage clothes,
washboard, standup bass, steel and resonator guitars?

 

Willie’s
show is as loose, casual and intimate as a camp-fire sing-along for 10,000
people. He plays the hits (“Crazy,” “Nightlife,” “Whiskey River”) and the crowd sings along
and revels in his Willienesss. Willie Nelson occupies a completely unique space
in the popular culture, and it is this: EVERYONE digs Willie Nelson. How does
he do this, the great leveling of all the country into his corner?

 

Well,
he’s WILLIE NELSON, and no one else is. As has been pointed out over the years,
he could probably run for president and win in a landslide.

 

John
Mellencamp’s show is rocking. The
volume goes up – way up – when he takes the stage, and all of a sudden we’re at
a rock concert. Girls in halter-tops
and skin tight jeans suddenly appear, butts suddenly begin to boogie. This guy
has enormous populist appeal, a bunch of hit songs that are also cultural
signifiers, and an ace band. When he’s not on stage he hangs out in his
Airstream trailer (the one with the motorcycle in front) in the holding area in
back.

 

I’ve only
seen one entire Dylan show so far, in Norfolk.
We watch the show with The Maybelles, friends of The Wiyos that appeared just
in time for the beginning of his set. Bob looks incredibly natty in his
tailored country gentlemen attire and white, flat-brimmed hat. His band, a casually
road-worn bunch of veterans, is almost as sharp in matching white jackets and
black hats. Dylan’s voice is somewhere between well seasoned, ragged and
deliciously ravaged in a sexy, older guy kind of way. In Norfolk he kicked in
with “Rainy Day Women # 12 and 35” from Blonde on Blonde; in Aberdeen it was “Leopard-Skin Pill-Box
Hat” from that same joyful record from 1966, a good sign for sure.
Tonight’s songs run from older numbers like “Highway 61 Revisted,”
“It Ain’t Me Babe” and “Like a Rolling Stone” to more
recent ones like “The Levee’s Gonna Break” and “Tweedle Dee and
Tweedle Dum” plus “Jolene” (from his new Together Through Life CD).

 

The
title seems telling; if there’s anyone we’ve been together through life with in
America,
it’s Bob Dylan. He switches from guitar to keyboard; he cues his band with
glances; he does not, of course, address the audience. Dylan’s “stage
presence” in front of an audience is much like it is off stage, an
impenetrable wall that only lets out or takes in exactly what Dylan chooses.
He’s earned the right to be and do exactly as he chooses to be and do. The
quality of his song-writing both over the years and in the last several years
pretty much puts him beyond reproach. 
What you take away from one of these shows is in a large part determined
by what you bring to it; he’s certainly not going to tell you what to feel or
think.

 

We’re
here on the coast relaxing with a couple of days off before picking up the tour
again tomorrow in Durham.
Will report more down the road.

 

***

 

Carl Hanni, a music industry publicist,
record collector and club deejay based in Tucson, regularly blogs for Blurt.
Read his blog “Sonic Reducer” HERE – including the next installment in his
Wiyos/Dylan/Nelson/Mellencamp tour diary.

 

 

THE JOURNEYMAN’S BLUES Bernie Pearl

He’s played with
everyone from Lightnin’ Hopkins
to Big Mama Thornton. He ain’t too shabby as a solo artist, either.

 

BY REV. KEITH A. GORDON

 

You’ve probably never heard of bluesman Bernie Pearl, but
you should have. The talented guitarist has played behind a veritable
“who’s who” of blues legends. After decades spent performing behind
other artists, Pearl
has recently taken steps to advance his own identity as a solo bluesman.

 

In 2008, Pearl
released his first studio album as a solo performer, a two-CD set titled Old School Blues Acoustic/Electric.
“One disc is acoustic and the other one is electric,” says Pearl. The expansion of
what was originally a single disc occurred by accident. “I went in, not
with that in mind,” he says, “but I went in to record a range of
things that I do and that I’ve been doing. We ended up with too much material
for one disc….”

 

Pearl’s
sound is a curious mix of Delta and Piedmont-styled country blues and modern
electric blues. “My approach has a lot of the blues tradition in it,”
he says. “The material is largely traditional material, but I think that I
have lived it long enough, and I feel confident enough to have reinterpreted
pretty much everything. I don’t do anything exactly like the original, I don’t
copy anybody’s playing. If I do a Lightnin’ Hopkins tune, I’m going to be doing some
Lightnin’ style riffs, but I’m going to put my own thing in there.”

 

Pearl
originally became exposed to folk and blues music through his siblings, whose records
he heard. “The thing that really pushed me completely off the precipice,”
he says, “was the live encounters with the blues musicians. Brownie McGhee
gave an in-house concert at my sister’s house in the late-50s. This was while I
was still in high school. I was very impressed with that…in those days, if you
knew three chords, you were three times as knowledgeable as anybody else
playing. It was more about songs and social activism.”

 

Still Pearl
wasn’t planning on a career in music at the time. “After high school, I
left for Israel for about a
year,” says Pearl,
“and by the time I came, back my brother [Ed] had opened a club called the
Ash Grove. The first show I recall, or at least the first that I remember in a
blues context…I forget who the headliner was, but the opening act was a one-man
band from Oakland
named Jesse Fuller.”

 

“He played a twelve-string guitar, amplified,”
says Pearl of Fuller, “he played a harmonica and a kazoo on a rack that
had a little microphone on it, so he sang through that. So he played the guitar
– very well – and he made up a little foot/bass set, where you hit the notes
with your toe, and a little rhythm instrument on the side of the bass,” he
remembers.

 

“I remember absolutely losing it…when he started
playing, I was pounding the table, I was screaming, jumping up and down, and I
was completely overtaken by it. I looked around, and the rest of the audience
was talking to each other. I went ‘oh oh, there’s something different here,’
and I started marching to a different drummer.” From that point, it was
the blues or nothing for Pearl.

 

Pearl would receive guitar
lessons from Brownie McGhee, but another legendary artist would provide Pearl with an advanced
education in the blues. “Shortly after that, Lightnin’ Hopkins
came out and he and I became very close,” says Pearl. “I began not only studying with
him, but I’d hang out with him, drive him around, talk to him. So when I was,
maybe 20, 21 years old, I was playing with Sam ‘Lightnin’ Hopkins. I don’t know how good I was, but he
tolerated me, and I loved the music. Before you knew it,” says Pearl, “I had stopped
trying to do folk music.”

 

When Dylan went electric during the mid-60s, Pearl was sitting in the
right place for the change. “I had bought an electric guitar in the early-60s
and had been messing around with it,” he recalls. Pearl’s skills on the electric guitar
provided further opportunities. “Big Mama Thornton came to town, and her
guitar player quit on her opening night in 1966. She hired me…I went and
auditioned for her in the dressing room, and she said ‘fine’.”

 

“From that point on, for three or four years, I
provided the house band for all of the electric players that came through who
did not bring a band. So that included a lot of the guys from Chicago like Johnny Shines, Big Walter
Horton, and J.B. Hutto…so I got a lot of my electric experience at the club as
well. So for about ten years, I got to play with all of these people.”

 

When the Ash Grove closed around 1973, Pearl mostly performed solo throughout the
rest of the decade. In the early-80s, he formed the Bernie Pearl Band. “We
really started in ’84,” says Pearl,
“and within two years I had found the guys that I currently work
with.” The band made its living by backing other artists. “We got a
lot of work with Harmonica Fats, and we backed up Big Joe Turner and Eddie
‘Cleanhead’ Vinson, Lowell
Fulsom…we were a utility band that played with everybody.”

 

Recently, online music archive Wolfgang’s Vault made a deal
with Pearl’s brother to acquire recordings that
we made at the Ash Grove, including several featuring Pearl
playing alongside many blues legends. “I think that it’s great, absolutely
wonderful,” says Pearl
of the rediscovered music. “I knew that my brother had all of these
recordings for years and years,” he says, “and I was wondering how
they were going to get out. These are one-of-a-kind recordings.”

 

These days, Pearl is busy
booking gigs for his band, providing guitar lessons to a select clientele, and revisiting
his past by hosting a weekly blues radio program at Cerritos College.
Pearl’s
“My Kind Of Blues” is broadcast every Saturday between 3:00 PM and
5:00 PM, and is streamed live on the internet through the college’s radio
station at www.wpmd.org.

 

[Photo Credit: E.K. Waller]

 

STICK A FORK IN IT Pitchfork Music Festival

Flaming Lips, Black Lips and lots of just plain lippy bands makin’ the
nature scene in Chi-town.

 

BY BRIAN STAKER

 

When not too long ago, music
festivals were waning along with the so-called sagging health of the music
industry in general, 2009 has somehow emerged as one of the best years in
recent memory not only for music but the apex of a new resurgence in music
festivals. Just last year the price of gasoline and the tight economy were
forcing bands to re-evaluate their touring agendas. Big festivals featuring
bands traveling long distances to play often-truncated sets didn’t seem to make
a lot of sense anymore. 

 

But this year festivals are back,
and big-time! One of the must-see festivals this year was presented by Pitchfork,
which has in some people’s eyes become so much the arbiter of indie taste that Wired magazine even went so far as to
devote an article explaining the zine’s influence to its (one presumes)
clueless geek readers. Haters call it ‘Bitchfork’ if their faves get poor
reviews. 

 

The presentation of the festival,
last weekend in Chicago’s Union Park with its baseball diamonds and horseshoe
pits, feels like a day at the park, though not your ordinary one. It’s
unabashedly a Chicago festival, with local eats
like Chicago
brats, renowned Connie’s Pizza and ‘Cevapcici,’ a Balkan lamb sausage in red
pepper and eggplant sauce, and also area brews, as well as a few local acts
like the Bowerbirds. 

 

But Pitchfork is also a festival
that can stack up against any music event in the world, with the lineup this
year. Along with indie veterans from the ‘90s Yo La Tengo, Built to Spill and
Flaming Lips, relative newcomers like the Black Lips and the Thermals
performed. But also several bands making their first festival appearances after
only being in the spotlight for a year or so, like the Pains of Being Pure at
Heart and the Vivian Girls, had their first thrill of playing for arena-size
crowds, with attendance close to 20,000 for the three-day fest. Pains were
noisy yet hummable pop that reminded me of Teenage Fanclub, while Vivian Girls’
sound recalled both shoegazer and the Riot Grrl years. 

 

Other acts that made a notable
impression at this year’s festival included flower punks Black Lips, with their
anarchic antics toned town from including bodily fluids to simply smashing a
guitar, Pete Townshend-style, shards flying out into the front row. “Anybody
need a pickup?” Ian St. Pe quipped, and it would have been just a stunt, except
their music is inspired as well. I was ready to hate The Pains of Being Pure At
Heart for their name alone, but they won me over with their grinning overdriven
melodicism and catchy tunes. Montreal
act Plants & Animals kicked off Saturday with a vengeance, with tight
three-piece garage rock that ended with chants of “NPR,” who has given them
critical acclaim. It’s a strange world we live in.

 

A few acts seemed like critical
missteps for the festival, like the Marvel Comics villain-clad hip-hopper Doom,
and Beirut
sounded tight instrumentally but better suited for a chamber hall than an
oversized venue. 

 

As the culmination of three days
showcasing the diverse spectrum of indie music, the Flaming Lips as the
crescendo of the festival was utterly transcendent, full-on ‘trip’ mode, LEDs
on the backdrop behind them strobing, finally coalescing into a woman, legs
open, a door opens in the set and band members emerge from her pulsating
vagina. After a prolonged musical intro in which Wayne Coyne roamed into the
audience in the big plastic bubble, they started their set with “Race For the
Prize,” amidst explosions of confetti cannons and yellow and orange balloons
tossed around. 

 

Flaming Lips’ set was part of the
“Write the Night’ program where attendees voted on set lists by them, Built to
Spill, Yo La Tengo, Tortoise and Jesus Lizard. They did the usual suspects like
“She Don’t Use Jelly” and “Yoshimi” but also a few surprises like
“Mountainside,” from the album From A
Priest Driven Ambulance
, and “Bad Days” which they dedicated to Chicago
Sun-Times rock journalist Jim DeRogatis. The crowd sang along with many of
these, and they concluded on “Do You Realize,” recently made the state song of Oklahoma, and also the
signature for their peculiarly loveable brand of indie rock optimism, seemingly
a rare commodity out in the world beyond the festival, where the reverberations
drift out into a pale shadow of the din within.

 

At one point Wayne Coyne said, in
the hyperbole of the moment, “Pitchfork is the monitor” of everything cool in
the indie music world. With this he capped off a weekend of indie rock bliss
and elation. Being at a Flaming Lips show is the indie music equivalent of
being at Disneyland, and that seems to sum up
the entire festival, music for the joy of music again.

 


[A pair o’ Black Lips, pictured above, photo credit Brian
Staker
]

 

DON’T EXHALE Oneida

Boundaries are merely for
crossing when it comes to the Brooklyn
experimentalists.

 

BY JENNIFER KELLY

 

Three is the magic number for Oneida this year. After all, there are three
core members in the Brooklyn-based band – drummer Kid Millions, keyboard player
Bobby Matador and bassist Hanoi Jane. Their current project, a triptych called Thank
Your Parents
, incorporates last year’s Preteen Weaponry (with three
songs), this year’s Rated O (a triple
CD/LP) and an unspecified third installment. To record Rated O they brought in three past and present members – Papa
Crazee, who left in 2002 to form Oakley Hall, Phil Manley (or Double Rainbow)
from Trans Am and the Fucking Champs who played guitar on The Wedding and Happy New Year, and Shahin Motia, a/k/a Showtime, also of the Ex -Models,
who still plays and tours with the band. (A fifth member, Barry London, who’d
previously engineered some of Oneida’s
albums, recently joined the group as well.)

 

Still, ask the band about numerology, or anything else,
really, and you’re likely to get a flip response. Fat Bobby, who is really not
fat at all, answered to a string of questions about influences and musical
direction by observing that Oneida
is an anagram for “No Idea,” and that tells you a fair amount right there.

 

Behind the jokester front, though, lurks a force in
experimental rock music, a hard-working band that cranks an album pretty much
every year and plays ear-pounding, mind-altering shows, all the while daring
you to take them seriously.  

 

Oneida
has had a triple album in its sights since the mid-‘00s, if for no other reason
than it seemed cool and impossibly difficult. “Like a lot of our ideas, it
sounded crazy when we thought it up,” says Kid Millions. “We thought, ‘How are
we going to do this? Is this even possible?’ 
And we just went ahead and tried to realize it.”

 

It didn’t work immediately. Happy New Year was
supposed to be a triple, but the band couldn’t record enough material in time
and shelved the idea. The returned to it last year, bringing in recordings from
as long as four years ago, a diverse mix of “Captain Bo” style bangers,
extended motorik cruises, eerie
folk-scented chants, noise-bent jams and one dancehall-style DJ toasting
complete with echoey classic dub production and produced, accidentally, in mono.

 

“It’s really nothing more complicated than like us being
like, ‘Wow, we really do a lot of different things,'” Millions explains. “We
were trying to put a boundary around it. But by putting up a boundary, we’re
delineating something that we can cross.”

 

Refusing to be penned in, that sounds like Oneida, a band that has consistently
confounded listeners who come to its albums with expectations.  And, in fact, the first handful of tracks on Rated
O
diverges in radical ways from past Oneida
efforts.

 

Consider “Brownout in Lagos,”
the album’s oldest track. The DJ on the cut, Dad-Ali Ziai, is one of Millions’
friends from high school, who came to New
York in 2005 and laid down the vocals. Millions says
his friend spent three hours crafting a verse for him, but that, ultimately,
what he liked best was the freestyle warm-up he did before getting to work. “I
said, ‘Hey, can we just try using the freestyling over this, like you did when
you showed up?’ And he was like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s always better.'”

 

Frequent Oneida
collaborator Brad Truax of Home made a beat for the track, and Millions sent it
off to Jagjaguwar. It was supposed
to be the first track for Happy New Year. “They thought it was a joke,” said
Millions. “We were so psyched about what we did, and they were like, ‘Is this
real?'”

 

Instead, “Brownout in Lagos” is the first track on Rated
O
leading off a string of extended experiments in sound, the burble and
bash of “What’s Up Jackal?”, the very electro-squiggly “10:30 at the Oasis”,
with guitar from both Manley and Papa Crazee, the long, mesmeric “Story of O”
and, the abstract, difficult “Human Factor”.

 

That song, clocking in at 10:28, arose out of an improv
session, where Millions decided to go for an extreme vocal approach. Millions,
who indicates he’d been thinking about outside singers such as Chris Desjardin
from the Flesheaters, Mark Morgan from Sightings, even Yoko Ono, says he sprung
the idea on the band one day at the studio. “Nobody knew what was coming. I
wanted a little bit of slapback on the vocals. I wanted it a little bit
distorted, nothing extreme.  But I wanted
to explore more different approaches to making sound with the throat.  I wanted to express emotion.”

 

The song is possibly the most difficult one on any of the
three CDs, and after it’s over, the band settles into songs like “The River,”
“I Will Haunt You”, “Ghost in the Room” and others that fans will immediately
recognize as Oneida.
“I suppose we do tend to put the more difficult stuff first,” Millions admitted.
“But in this case, we always wanted to put ‘Brownout in Lagos’ first. And then somehow those first
songs were of that seed and of that era somehow.”   

 

Guests from Oneida’s
past, present and periphery appear throughout Rated O, but perhaps the
most arresting cameo comes from Gian Carlo Felipe, ex of Mink Lungs and now of
Emergency Party, who lays down sitar in “O”. “We had been playing all weekend. And
I was just like, dude, come on out. Come to the studio and lay a track. So we
set him up in the studio and just played,” says Millions. “I think we all felt
at the end of that performance, oh, okay, whatever, that was interesting, okay
fine. But then we listened back to it, and we were like, whoa.”

 

And that’s the key, actually, to the whole Oneida experience. Think too much, and you’ll
get lost in a hall of funhouse mirrors. Listen to the music and it starts to
make sense. As Fat Bobby, asked how Rated O relates to Preteen
Weaponry
, puts it, “That’s one of things that has to be the territory of
the listener, not the speaker, I think. I mean, when provoked I will talk big
and move air, but we worked too hard on making this stuff say the right thing,
that for once I’m feeling like not… exhaling.”

 

The final installment in the trilogy is most likely recorded
now, but no one knows exactly what it will sound like or when it will
drop.  “It could be any number of things
right now,” says Millions. “We recorded about an album’s worth of minimal,
really quiet stuff, and there’s a double album of really bombastic, dudes-in-a-garage,
bashing out long, epic, stupid stuff. There’s a lot of stuff to pick from and a
bunch of different songs. We don’t know what to make it yet.”

 

Bobby adds, “Jane will be executive producing the ska
tribute to this project when he turns 60. Apparently it will be called Skank
Your Parents
.”

 

But in any case, there’s no point in trying to pin these
guys down about who they are or what they may attempt in the future. Expect
more irony, more experimentation, more serious greatness wrapped in silliness
delivered with a monkey’s grin. Expect more of everything, especially the stuff
you don’t know what to do with.

 

Says Millions, “If people really hate it, then maybe we’ll
do more.”

 

 

 

Oneida began a brief
U.S. tour, followed by an extende trek to Europe and the U.K., on July 10. Tour
dates at their MySpace page: http://www.myspace.com/oneidarocks.

 

 

[Photo Credit: Lisa Corson]

 

KICKIN’ STACHE The 2009 World Beard and Mustache Championships

Ov Dali, English, Verdi, the Alaskan
Whaler and the Hungarian/Wild West…

 

BY JONAH FLICKER

 

It’s Memorial
Day weekend, and Anchorage, Alaska is buzzing with hordes of the happily
hirsute. The city is hosting the 2009 World Beard and Mustache Championships,
and facial hair formations of every size, shape, and construction adorn the
mugs of men, young and old, that have congregated here. Lumberjacks,
Confederate soldiers, Amish, Round Table knights, Old West cowboys, hippies,
Scotsmen, trappers, fops, and even Moses himself are represented by the
elaborate costumes they wear. Clearly, there’s a sense of the ridiculous in
this scenario, but these gentlemen in various states of grizzle are intensely
focused on the honor and privilege of bringing home the gold.

 

(Go HERE to see
our Gallery of Beards. Watch out – some of those things are alive! 3D, even.)

 

Beard Team USA is jubilant
and more than a little patriotic as the Parade of Beards winds its way through
downtown. It’s all about pomp and good-natured bragging rights amongst the 250
contestants representing 13 countries and 32 states. Many of these furry-faced
enthusiasts have no doubt spent some time in the many brewpubs and dive bars
that line the Anchorage streets, giving a yeasty cheer to the proceedings. The
sunshine, balmy 60-degree temperatures, and breathtaking mountain vistas, no
doubt, contribute to the ebullition as well.

 

Some locals,
however, aren’t as enthusiastic. I’m sitting in a den of drunk, lost souls
called Darwin’s Theory before the judging begins at the Dena’ina Convention
Center. As the barmaid coaxes me into buying another beer, some guys sitting
across from me are commenting on the Cavs-Magic game we’re watching. Even after
finding out I’m a Lakers fan, they’re willing to chat about the beard buzz.
“The last thing I want to see is a bunch of bearded men,” barks Terrence,
himself no stranger to face bristles. His goatee/beard hybrid quivers as he
chuckles at his cantankerousness. When I press him further, he proceeds to tell
me a random, macabre story about a local schizophrenic named Christopher Rogers
who went on a murder spree a few years ago and is now facing almost 300 years
in prison. “Now he had a beautiful beard,” he says, in conclusion.

 

The actual
competition is, to be honest, less than titillating. There are three categories
– mustache, partial beard, and full beard. Within these are sub-divisions like
Dali, English, Verdi, and the Alaskan Whaler (full beard with no mustache). It
takes ages to get through each division because of the large number of
competitors. But when the winners are announced, their clumsy exuberance on the
catwalk makes it all worth it. This year, America bests Germany, traditionally
the largest title-holder in the world of competitive facial hair growing, in a
surprise upset. The red, white, and blue takes home 29 medals overall,
justifying the “U.S.A.!” chants that have punctuated the clean Alaska air all
weekend.

 

The next
morning, I ponder Terrence’s grumpy words as I wander the Anchorage Weekend
Market, looking for souvenir antlers and reindeer sausage. All these beard
fetishists bombarding your city has got to be a little irritating when your own
visage shag is based on function, not fashion. Maybe he also wanted to fuck
with a facial-hair-challenged writer asking stupid questions, and who can blame
him? Still, I’m inspired by the heartbreak and triumph of this jovial
competition, and I’m looking forward to the next installment in 2011. I figure
that’s enough time to grow a Hungarian/Wild West mustache bushy enough to get
through the pre-judging.

 

 

[Photo Credit:
Jonah Flicker]

 

POSITIVE FEEDBACK David Berkeley

With critical
comparisons to Tim Buckley and Nick Drake nipping at his heels, the
Atlanta-based songwriter is on the move.

 

BY STEVEN ROSEN

 

David Berkeley, the rising singer-songwriter whose latest album is Strange Light, has as unusual a story
about his musical roots as you’re likely to hear.

 

He was taught to sing at his nursery school by nude female
hippie teachers who wore guitars strapped around their necks and played music
all the time in class. In New Jersey, yet!

 

Well, confesses the 32-year-old Berkeley upon interrogation,
maybe that “naked” part isn’t true. “That’s a rosy memory,” he says, as in
viewing the past through rose-colored glasses. “They were definitely hippie,
definitely had guitars. The nude part is maybe an exaggeration.

 

“But when I look back on how I ended up doing what I’m
doing, I often come back to that nursery school. It clearly left a mark.”

 

His third album, Strange
Light,
was issued quietly in October of last year on his Straw Man label – he undertook that
self-release after doing a segment on the NPR show This American Life – and is now getting a proper national
roll-out via Thirty Tigers. It also shows signs of leaving a mark, showcasing
his voice’s broodingly romantic qualities, introspective yet emotional lyrics,
and sumptuously dramatic melodies that allow ballads and mid-tempo numbers to
have the swing and crackle of tasteful rock. 
It was produced by Brian Deck and features Nickel Creek’s Sara Watkins
on backing vocals.

 

Songs like “Hurricane,” “Willis Avenue Bridge” and
“Halloween Parade” show Berkeley’s knack for using vividly visual objects as
symbolic entries into the world of his feelings. He has earned comparisons to
both Tim Buckley and Nick Drake – past masters of similar music.

 

He also has an engaging storytelling style that lures the
interest of crowds unfamiliar with him or his music, as he displayed recently
at a late-night round-robin session with three others – including local
favorite Kim Taylor – at Cincinnati’s Northside Tavern.

 

Could he have learned all this in nursery school?  “It was a very musical and creative place,
and I was verbal at a young age,” he says by telephone, after returning from a
brief solo tour of England and Scotland. That followed a U.S. engagement accompanying
British singer Katie Melua. “I remember us doing all sorts of musical things
all the time, whether singing or theatrical productions. I was singing as early
as I was speaking. So I became comfortable using my voice as an instrument from
the start.”

 

But as if that wasn’t enough positive reinforcement for a
youngster, Berkeley also partnered at an early age with a traveling saleswoman.
He’d sing when homeowners came to the door as a way to get them invited
inside.  If that sounds like something out
of The Grifters, it was far more
innocent, Berkeley
says.

 

“She was a woman who looked after me and sold Avon Products
door-to-door,” he says. “Neighbors would open the door and I would sing – it
would be a song about the Titanic sinking, and they’d give me cookies and
ideally buy her products.

 

“So the general theme here is I was used to getting positive
feedback, whether cookies or applause, from a young age.”

 

Berkeley needed a nanny
because his mother was frequently busy as a health/medical writer for The New York Times, while his father ran
a garment business out of his Empire
State Building
office.

 

Serendipitously, as this phone interview was being
conducted, an E-mail press release arrived from Shout! Factory Records
announcing a new tribute album honoring singer-songwriter Mark Mulcahy. That
release for Ciao My Shining Star listed some impressive participants – Thom Yorke, Michael Stipe, The National,
Elvis Perkins, Dinosaur Jr and, on track four, Berkeley performing Mulcahy’s “Love’s the
Only Thing That Shuts Me Up.” (The trib comes out Sept. 29.)

 

This information is shared with Berkeley, who had only
learned days earlier that his submission for the album had been accepted –
apparently, there were more than the 21 selected for the final release. That’s
a testament to the high regard for the New England-based Mulcahy, who was once
in the band Miracle Legion.

 

“One of my early supporters was Ellen Cavolina Porter, who
used to run Club Fez in New York,” Berkeley says. “She turned me on to his
music; they were friends.” (Club Fez closed in
2006; Berkeley
previously has released Live From Club
Fez
on CD and DVD.)

 

Given his family’s intellectual background, it’s perhaps not
surprising Berkeley would enroll in Harvard and study literature and philosophy.
But what is unusual and unexpected is that he became an avid outdoorsman -doing
whitewater-rafting in Idaho, getting a writing internship at Outside, and
contributing to the Let’s Go Alaska guidebook. He traces his interest in the
outdoors to a year spent in California between high school and college, working
for a Peace Corps-like group in San Jose. In his free time, he would discover
California’s outdoor wonders.

 

Berkeley has always maintained his enjoyment in singing. And
he wrote down thoughts and observations in journals. What was missing was
songwriting, and he says he needed the experience of “heartbreak” to move in
that direction.

 

“I came to writing music late, but always I’ve been verbal
and reflective,” he says. “It continues to be the hardest thing I do. There’s a
lot of mystery to it. It isn’t that I found something very easy for me or that
I’m confident about my abilities. It’s in fact kind of the opposite. But I
stick to it.”

 

Berkeley now lives in Atlanta where his wife is a graduate
student in anthropology at Emory University. They have a young son. Before
moving to Atlanta, they spent a year in the tiny Corsican mountain village of
Tralanca, where she did field work and he made inroads with the Corsican music
scene.

 

“I just sang the English verses on a Corsican version of
‘Hallelujah,'” he says. “The whole French and Italian music scene is about
singing as big and full as you can and I sing very quietly. When I was
recording ‘Hallelujah, I had to do 20 takes. Everyone said, ‘More, bigger.’ So
I’m afraid of how it’s going to sound.”

 

 [Photo Credit: Caleb Chancey]

 

BLURTING WITH… Christina Courtin

Forget
the Norah Jones comparisons. The classically trained violinist would rather
folks think Tom Waits.

 

BY HAL BIENSTOCK

 

Christina Courtin started off life as a musical
follower, yet by the time she entered New
York’s prestigious Julliard School of Music she was
so intent on following her own muse that a professor regularly referred to her
as “my rebel.” A classically trained violinist, Courtin started playing the
violin at the age of three for the simple reason that her two older siblings
were doing it.

 

“My oldest brother saw Yitzhak Perlman playing
violin on Sesame Street
and said ‘Mom, I want to play violin,'” Courtin explains. “My parents said OK.
Then my sister started to play too. And if they were doing it, I had to do it
too.” But Perlman wasn’t the only musician on the stereo at Courtin’s house.
She also spent plenty of time listening to Michael Jackson and the Beatles, as
well as her dad’s Steve Miller and Boston
albums. Put it all together and you get a singer-songwriter whose self-titled
debut uses string arrangements and instrumentation a coffeehouse folkie would
never dream of. While her professor may not have understood, plenty of other
people are catching on.

 

We talked to Courtin about how the challenges of
keeping one foot in the classical world and one foot in the pop world, and why
she’s no Yngwie.

 

***

 

What
are you happiest about with how your debut turned out?

 

Just the feel of it. I think it has a beautiful
feeling, and if you listen to whole thing from beginning to end, I feel like
it’s a work that holds together.

 

Do
people listen to full albums that way anymore? Isn’t it mostly about singles on
iTunes these days?

 

I guess I’m old fashioned in that way. I’m a
Beatles fanatic and the thing that’s so great about their records is that you
want to listen to them from beginning to end. All great records have that,
where you can listen to the whole thing and get this complete feeling. Even if
other people don’t care about that anymore, I still do.

 

What
made you decide to become a singer-songwriter instead of following the career
path of a classical violinist?

 

It wasn’t something I sat down and decided. I
always sang and I started writing songs when I was 15 or 16. As a kid, I was
into writing stories and even writing music. It’s always been a part of my
life.

 

Did
you see pop music and classical music as similar?

 

I think some things share a similar spirit.
Maybe there’s not much similarity between Mozart and Boston, but certainly a band like The Beatles.
In both cases, the sound is incredible, the performances are great, the playing
is great. It’s so magical.

 

Were
you nervous that Julliard people would disapprove of your decision to embrace
pop music?

 

I was pretty scared to play my stuff at first,
but people were really supportive. Most people there were interested in other
things besides having classical music tunnel vision. You kind of have to be,
because that’s a pretty small world.

 

But
you had a lot of success as a classical violinist. It seems like one minute you
were sharing a stage with Yo Yo Ma, the next you’re in a dirty rock club
playing to a tiny crowd. Was that a hard transition?

 

Not at all. Part of it is that I never thought
of myself as being particularly successful as a classical musician. And anyway,
I’m not the kind of person who thinks “I’m doing great at this one thing, so I’m
going to grab on to it as tightly as I can.”

 

And
you haven’t completely given up classical music. Do you think you’ll be able to
continue in both worlds?

 

I hope so. I need both in my life. Right now, I’m
in one orchestra, called The Knights, which I’ve been in since my first year of
college. The problem is that when people in the classical world find out you’re
doing something else they assume you don’t want to play classical music anymore,
so I’m not getting as many calls as I used to.

 

Is
it hard to bring rock and classical together? It seems like whenever people try
it, you wind up with some bombastic Emerson
Lake & Palmer-type
thing.

 

Or Yngwie (laughs). That’s not exactly what I’m
going for. But I do think you can do both. The drummer for Wilco does a lot of
new classical stuff, along with his pop music. So does Nico Mulhy. Then there
are groups that straddle the line like the Bang on a Can All Stars or Newspeak.

 

A
musician you often get compared to is Norah Jones. How do you feel about that?

 

I don’t feel great about it. She doesn’t write her own music
and is so far away from what I am. I think people say that just because we both
have brown hair and brown eyes. She’s very talented, but her music isn’t the
kind that resonates for me.

 

Is
there someone whose career you do admire?

 

I’d love to be thought of like Tom Waits someday.
He’s a guy that’s done it right. He makes great music that everybody knows and
respects, but he also chills with his family, lives in a beautiful place and
does what he wants. If I wound up like that, I’d be pretty happy.

 

 

[Photo Credit: Autumn DeWilde]