Thursday, August 03, 2006

New Old Theater Company's Black Eyed Susan

One of my theater-related pieces, very few, if any, of which are up here at this point.

May 28, 2004 issue of the Washington City Paper


by Pamela Murray Winters

A 19th-century-style theatrical production on the lawn of a Georgian mansion sounds like a charming, elegant diversion. But on a Saturday at the Riversdale estate in Riverdale Park , Md. , theatergoers must contend with plenty of uncomfortable elements. First it's the manic whirr of lusty cicadas. Then the chatter of wine-guzzling, paper-fan-rattling neighbors. Then, well, the smells of those neighbors, crammed into a tent on a sultry night. And most frightening of all: men in nautical garb. Singing. "We always are ready! Steady, boys, steady!"

"Back before television, this was what people did for entertainment," says Buff Huntley, assistant director of the New Old Theater Company's production of Black-Eyed Susan. At Riversdale for a three-day run last weekend, the 1829 nautical melodrama by British dramatist Douglas Jerrold is the company's first attempt to simulate the traveling-theater experience of that pre-idiot-box time.

The brainchild of Severn , Md. 's, Steven Lampredi, New Old is rooted in one of the actor and director's formative experiences: going backstage at a melodrama organized by his theatrically inclined mother."What was on the actor's face up close wasn't what you saw from the audience," the 48-year-old recalls. "And then I saw the buzz saw--and it was made of wood."

Lampredi remembers being enraptured by the effectiveness of the artifice, and his own stage career has included forays into the stylized forms of commedia dell'arte and mime. Two months ago, Lampredi placed ads on theatrical bulletin boards seeking actors for a production "only slightly adapted to suit a modern audience." The two dozen or so respondents included Huntley, a Victorian-history aficionado from Alexandria who was vital in helping the fledging company escape anachronism--even though, on Saturday, she can't do a thing about the ice-cream truck that has parked nearby, tinkling "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."

The all-volunteer troupe had to learn not only the script, but also the conventions of 19th-century performance: Actors faced the audience instead of each other, with no amplification and under the light of candle lamps and lanterns. And gestures, says Huntley, who studied vintage photographs and elocution manuals, were highly codified. There were specific arm movements for each emotion, making it easier for audiences of the day to follow the plot even if they couldn't make out the words. "One contemporary wrote of an actor looking like a windmill," Huntley laughs.

On Saturday, New Old's actors keep things enthusiastically broad as rake after rake tries to separate Susan's sailor hero, Sweet William, from his lovely wife. To add yet another a period touch, the audience is encouraged to cheer and boo, causing Kim Curtis, who portrays villainous Doggrass, to sneer at the crowd as he slithers offstage.

"People laugh at melodrama," Huntley says afterward. But she notes that the genre has a vital place in literary history: "People like Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe, and Herman Melville"--who might have based Billy Budd on Susan--"saw it and were inspired to write by it."

Lampredi, encouraged by the show's warm reception and the sheer fun his troupe is having on its maiden voyage, envisions bringing Susan and other 18th- and 19th-century plays to regional historical sites.

"They're like a time capsule," says Lampredi. "I like Shakespeare, too, but these are so obscure. It's a secret, like it's locked up."

Those Darn Accordions! at IOTA...sometime this century

If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears accordions.

Specifically, Those Darn Accordions!, who took the Iota stage in a whirl of boas, Hawaiian shirts, cat glasses, flared sideburns and vertical keyboards on Monday. The six-piece ensemble -- four squeezeboxers, a drummer and a bassist -- clearly reveled in its oddness, but it also took full advantage of the range of accordion sounds to create high-octane, high-quality pop.

Although the initial shouts of "What time is it? It's polka time!" cast fear into the hearts of some listeners -- I, for one, explored Iota's fine selection of single-malts -- the oompah beat was not the only one in the band's arsenal. "Mr. Stagle's Revenge," a song about a shop teacher and his slacker student, boasted surfy keyboards and female harmonies reminiscent of the B-52's. "Wall of Gum" offered kiddie-bubblegum-rap bounce. And "Clownhead," a nightmare of freakish laughter and wailing chords, suggested the result of putting David Byrne and Frankie Yankovic in a blender and pushing "puree."

But most of the set showcased TDA's genial charms. Singer Paul Rogers apologized to banjoist Travis Rinehart, of opening band Jackass Flats, before the Dr. Demento-worthy rant "Hippie With a Banjo." Afterward, he commented: "Who else are a bunch of accordion players gonna make fun of, really?"

The Love Hall Tryst, Songs of Misfortune

Washington Post, 1/20/06, in a section called "Lost Tracks" for "CDs we overlooked last year."


The Love Hall Tryst

For those who haven't read Wesley Stace's "Misfortune" -- a novel built on the themes that infuse traditional music -- satisfaction can still be found in "Songs of Misfortune," a companion to the book performed by the Love Hall Tryst: Harding, actor Brian Lohmann and alt-country legends Kelly Hogan and Nora O'Connor.

The songs bear modal harmonies and classic folk motifs: the too-tight apron as a signifier of pregnancy, the roses growing over the grave, the timid outcry of one "never heard to speak so free." Yet nearly half were penned by Harding, who proves himself as graceful a writer in the traditional mode as the minds behind Fairport Convention in the 1960s.

The final two tracks, by Harding's "mediaeval rock" group the Minstrel in the Galleries, exhibit the fire of Fairport's early work, though Kurt Bloch's slightly wanky electric guitar solos show a 1970s influence as well.

Most of the songs have little or no accompaniment, and although the group doesn't have quite the power or the vocal tone of the Young Tradition, the interpretations are heartfelt.

You'll hang on every word of both of Harding's retellings of "Lord Bateman" -- a cappella and electric -- no matter how many times you've heard it before.

-- Pamela Murray Winters


Tracy Bonham, Blink the Brightest

Washington Post
"Quick Spins"

June 22, 2005

Tracy Bonham's one of the toughest women ever to tinkle the keys of a Wurlitzer. Or so she might like you to believe.

"Blink the Brightest" is glossy with pop artifice -- in that scuffed-boot alto that is capable of surprising sweetness (although in "I Was Born Without You," it dips into harsher Alanis-like bitterness) -- and the way the note-perfect production, featuring Bonham on violin and vibes among other instruments, makes every word crisply audible in her tales of heartbreak and pain.

The line between portraying a character and succumbing to its cliches is a high wire to walk, but Bonham treads it gracefully after two other albums and an EP of this stuff. She carefully maintains the biker-chick persona with her husky voice and the occasional line like "I spilled my guts on your best shoes." When she pushes the image too far, as with closer "Did I Sleep Through It All?" she sounds like dozens of other leather-and-lace wannabes, with too cute turns of phrase: "I drank too much at the Sunday school party . . . I smoked too much during my operation." She's best on the lushly melodic "And the World Has the Nerve to Keep Turning," wherein she castigates the sun for having the, uh, masculine nerve to keep burning.

"Blink the Brightest" wouldn't work for a second if this pop diva didn't admit she's striking pose after pose. "I'm tough as nails, I'm made of stone, don't you know?" she sings. "I don't want you to see me wilting like a flower."

- Pamela Murray Winters

Richard Julian, Slow New York

Richard Julian's 'Slow New York' State of Mind

You might not guess that Richard Julian is from Delaware, given his elegiac treatment of Gotham on his latest recording, "Slow New York." Then again, Julian's adopted home has inspired more than its fair share of love songs.

In capturing the chaos, the need for connection and the quick-wittedness and easy humor that typify city life, Julian tends toward the universal. He name-checks the Sunday Times and Rivington Street in the title song, but he's more interested in portraying the experiences of New Yorkers, an approach he calls telling "stories in freeze frame."

If Julian were telling his own story, "A Short Biography" would portray him as a clever slacker, a man who does nothing, but does it beautifully. The jump-jazzy number -- complete with a Louis Prima- and Keely Smith-style shout-back chorus -- offers rambling thoughts such as "Oh, no, too many things to do/And I'm not gonna do a damned one." After an interlude by the sort of piano that, as Tom Waits would say, has been drinking, the song ends with a few odd notes and Julian's self-deprecating snicker.

But the song's wit gives the lie to its substance. Julian may portray his life as a happy ramble, but he rambles with the likes of Norah Jones, with whom he's been a frequent band mate. It's Jones's tipsy piano we hear, and elsewhere she contributes vocals. They're joined by many lesser-known but equally accomplished musicians and Julian pals. Although his producer, Brad Jones, is based in Nashville, the group recorded in New York, and the result retains a small-club feel.

A self-described "confessional singer-songwriter in basic black," Julian can do gloom with the best of them: His relationship with New York is the only one here with a happy ending. But despite titles like "Cold Grey Sky," his music never brings the listener down. In fact, he's at his best when he's upbeat. Consider "Cheap Guitar," a masterfully worked-out metaphor. It's measured, with a hint of sludgy blues, but a full Muscle Shoals arrangement wouldn't have suited a song about clinging to poorly made goods. As Julian declares, "You got to listen to your heart"; the six strings strumming behind him sound loose, a little tinny, perfectly imperfect.

"If a Heart Breaks," another standout, has the same sort of Latin-pop feel that made Paul Simon's "Cecilia" and "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard" so catchy. Like Julian's other songs, though, it's about something substantial, in this case ditching the attitude and learning to connect, even when the result is less satisfying than expected. Here a dying man says: "I'd like to leave you with a piece of advice/Don't take advice from anyone."

Julian's sardonic side also shows on "End of the Line," a customer-disservice interlude that ends with the admonition: "Sir, your business is no longer welcome at the happiness emporium."

Julian has had the usual music-business struggles, but ultimately he tempers his hard-earned wisdom with his lust for life, and the result is music that neither demands dissertations nor insults the intelligence. In short, pretty much the perfect soundtrack for that crazy city on the Hudson.

By Pamela Murray Winters
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, February 5, 2006; N06

Damon and Naomi, The Earth Is Blue

Harp, May 2005

Damon and Naomi
The Earth Is Blue

Former members of Galaxie 500 Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang know a thing or two about psychedelic folk: Good portions of The Earth is Blue wouldn't sound out of place next to Judy Dyble-era Fairport Convention, especially when Yang's frail soprano is at the fore. Somehow the duo just manages to dodge triteness with lovely numbers like "Beautiful Close Double," which mixes inoffensive platitudes ("You can't step into the same stream twice") with faint, to-the-hunt horns and gorgeously melting electric and acoustic guitar. The horns, as well as the acid-filigreed mood, recur on the spooky "Malibran," which is voiced by an understated Krukowski. "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" seems the perfect Beatles cover for these two, though they might also have done a trippy "Dear Prudence," and it flutters so tremulously that you might need a hand-holder to talk you down. True, sometimes Earth' s sound goes so ephemeral you'll doze a little, but as a blast from the flower power past, it's surprisingly fresh and nonprecious.

Blind Boys, 2005

Washington Post, April 4, 2005

Jimmy Carter took a Washington crowd by storm on Saturday night--not former president Carter but the slender, graying founding member of the Blind Boys of Alabama.

At first, Carter and his six companions on the Lisner Auditorium stage seemed oddly expressionless. Their hard-core gospel sound was rousing and couldn't help but inspire. It was hard to miss with material like "Down by the Riverside," Tom Waits's "Way Down in the Hole" (with guest Charlie Musselwhite on harmonica) and "Atom Bomb" -- the Cold War song by the Soul Stirrers and the title track of the Blind Boys' new CD.

Clarence Fountain, the group's other surviving founding member, did his share of talking between numbers, but for the most part the musicians seemed mellow, even in their stop-sign-red suits. They let their music communicate for them, and communicate it did, building in power during a relatively brief but demanding set.

Demanding of the audience, that is. During a lengthy spiritual, the 73-year-old Carter became so worked up that he began hopping and spinning. Helped into the crowd, he pranced up and down the aisles on the arm of bassist Tracy Pierce, getting witnesses and emitting James Brown-worthy "Heys!" that sometimes lasted so long they sounded like sci-fi weapon fusillades. The audience did more dancing and clapping than the other performers did. And that's why, when Fountain declared during the encore, "We could go on all night," the weary, albeit delighted listeners were probably glad they wouldn't. Better that they should go on for years -- it's been more than 60 so far -- and give the rest of us a chance to catch our breath between visitations of the Spirit.

-- Pamela Murray Winters

Richard Thompson Scores Grizzly Man (Harp)

Get yourself the Grizzly Man DVD if you want to see In the Edges. And you do.

Richard Thompson Scores Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Flick

Director Werner Herzog once said, “Civilization is like a thin layer of ice upon a deep ocean of chaos and darkness.” For his documentary Grizzly Man, about Timothy Treadwell—a self-styled naturalist whose enthusiasm for getting inside the mind of the Alaskan brown bear was such that he ended up inside an Alaskan brown bear—Herzog demanded a soundtrack that drew on dark wildness.

Richard Thompson could have said no: “If you do a lot of soundtrack work you get used to having stuff chopped around, hacked up, ditched unceremoniously.” But given a chance to work with Herzog and two longtime friends—Erik Nelson, Grizzly Man's producer, and improvisational musician Henry Kaiser, who produced the film's music—Thompson signed on as the primary composer and performer.

The musicians didn't see the finished film before they began; they didn't work “to picture.” Instead, they followed the direction of Herzog and Kaiser, their knowledge of some of the film's scenes, and their own artistic impulses. “I didn't want to have a score written from millisecond to millisecond; I needed a basic mood and a climate,” says Herzog.

The creation spawned another creation: As the musicians worked at Berkeley, Calif.’s Fantasy Studios, Nelson shot a documentary of the process, called In the Edges. The title comes from Thompson: “If you rub the edges off music, you really take away the music itself. The music is in the edges; it's in the rough bits.”

“Werner was in the studio for the whole thing, which was, uh,” Thompson pauses for a long time, and then laughs: “Well, I won't say 'intimidating.' I think it was a kind of focus for everybody. Werner knew exactly what he wanted; he didn't necessarily know how to get there. That was our job: to figure out how to arrive at his vision.”

In the Edges shows Herzog directing his musicians to go bigger (to Thompson: “Plant your foot down. You are too melodious. Change the planet!”) or smaller (to Kaiser: “If you go too wild, I'll step and trample on your foot!”) It also contains music that didn't make it into Grizzly Man, including a duet between Thompson on guitar and Jim O'Rourke (Sonic Youth) on prepared piano.

A soundtrack album is planned, and In the Edges may be released as an extra feature when Grizzly Man comes out on DVD. Or maybe Herzog will again get his way: “It could really be a film on its own, in its own right,” he declares.

Harp, Sep/Oct 2005

Jessi Colter, Out of the Ashes

Jessi Colter
Out of the Ashes

Shout Factory

The press release for Jessi Colter's comeback album dismisses the opener, "His Eye Is on the Sparrow," as a "perfunctory blessing." But although Colter's more earthy than ethereal on Out of the Ashes, the title provides a clue to a theme of rebirth. "Out of the Rain" even resurrects Waylon Jennings, who rejoins his old partner via an old vocal track; the result sounds eerily--and appropriately--unfinished. Colter also rebirths Dylan's "Rainy Day Women #12 & #35," scrubbing it totally clean of druggy double-entendres but still keeping it real.

Producer Don Was keeps things stripped-down, almost demo-like, with solid, unremarkable backing, allowing Colter's humanity to glow. "Sparrow" reveals a passion that's almost too naughty for the choir loft, one that's played out in "You Can Pick 'Em," where the outlaw-country legend, now living in Arizona, geographically catalogs someone's exes: "There was one from Texas/Oh she made you squall/But the one from Arizona left you no soul at all." This must be the same demon-woman who sings ominously, in the provocatively imagistic "The Canyon," "It's a long way down the canyon/Only the stars would see you fall."

By Pamela Murray Winters

Harp, Mar/Apr 2006

Richard Thompson, 1000 Years of Popular Music, Harp, 2003

Did Harp really say "100 Years..."? Sheesh.

This version of the 1000 Years show, and its studio recording, preceded the one captured on DVD in early 2005 and recently released as a DVD/CD set by Cooking Vinyl. And yeah, I'm in the audience. But you can see me better in the Providence DVD, and the Boxed Set broadcast from Glasgow, and the Sessions at West 54th.

I really, really wanted to go to Chicago for this show. Couldn't pull it off. Deep-dish pizza, Frank Lloyd Wright, my friend Louise's Hopleaf Bar...RT would've been icing on the cake, if I had a sweet tooth. Call him provolone on the pie.

Oh, hell, I'm "blogging" again.

Richard Thompson: Popularity Contest

During “100 [1000!] Years of Popular Music” audience members are treated to a musical history lesson-Richard Thompson-style.

At Richard Thompson’s live shows, fans call out for the tirelessly touring troubadour to sing his best-known songs, such as “Wall of Death,” or obscurities such as “Push and Shove.” But audience members at a handful of Thompson shows won’t hear any of Thompson’s own compositions.

The British-born musician first performed “1,000 Years of Popular Music” in 2000 at the Getty Center in his current home town, Los Angeles. Its success led to a sequel, also at the Getty, and later a five-night run at Joe’s Pub in New York City, with Thompson, vocalist Judith Owen, and percussionist Michael Jerome offering a slightly different set each night. Shows in London and Chicago are forthcoming. “He crystallizes our concept of presenting both old and new music under the umbrella of folk,” says Colleen Miller, concert director for the Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music, which will present the show-with Owen and percussionist Debra Dobkin-for two sold-out nights in October

The idea,” writes Thompson in the liner notes to a CD of the show, “is that...great ideas, tunes, rhythms, styles, get left in the dust of history, so let’s have a look at what’s back there, and see if it still does the trick.” The concept has led to Thompson’s assaying a medieval Italian adultery song, a little-known Stephen Foster lament, and even Prince’s “Kiss.” Thompson says he’d like to see other artists try the same format. Word to Beck!

Harp, Oct/Nov 2003

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Mary Timony, Harp, 2002

Gee, did I imply that I'm a lazy journalist?

Mary Timony:

The dreamy Mary Timony is the stuff of a lazy journalist’s nightmare. She offers no easy explanations for her work, no biographical tidbits that map neatly to her songs, no epiphanic meetings with Satan or Dylan at the crossroads, no influence-based recipes (one part Phair, one part Chopin, one part Aphrodite?).

“I never have anything that I’m consciously influenced by,” she says patiently, as if this is the most common question she gets-and maybe it is. “I feel really different from other musicians in that way, ’cause some people are just really avid fans of something. And I’m a fan of a lot of stuff, but I just don’t really have a major influence. It’s just that I like to be creative...It’s really unconscious, I think. I’m not the kind of person who has this really conscious influence.”

Some possibly useless facts about Timony: Dionne Warwick spoke at her graduation from Duke Ellington School for the Arts. She’s shared a stage with Carrie Brownstein and William Shatner for commercials. Her band Helium once opened for Arlo Guthrie. She has two cats, one of whom jumped onto her belly during our phone interview, sending her into a cascade of surprised giggles.

Pressed, she admits to a few influences: “I’m kind of inspired by people in Boston who are doing things, performers that aren’t musical.” They include Miss Dominica K, “this girl who’s a baton-twirling performance artist”; MC Cathy Cathodic (“she’s really rad”), and Jake the Puppet Master, who puts on “these really existential crazy puppet shows.”

She’ll tell you readily what she doesn’t like and can’t imagine ever doing: “Pretty much anything you hear on commercial radio.” In 1994 she told Magnet that “Helium is folk.” (Perhaps this explains the bill with Guthrie?) By 1997 she was saying, “I like some indie rock bands but to tell you the boring truth, I think the time may come very very soon when Helium records sound like Joni Mitchell (or try to) albums.” Five years later, she says, “I’m starting to feel like so much of rock music is derivative and boring to me.”

The muse she follows seems to keep her on her toes: Although she occasionally dabbles in landscaping work, music is now her “day job.” Her latest solo album, The Golden Dove (Matador), reveals her consorting with mysterious animals (her cats?) in strange landscapes (her part-time work?) on a sonic ground of harpsichord and sharp-tongued guitar (Ellington?) and always with an ironic humor (Shatner?).

Quite possibly, the key to Timony is that she takes what she experiences and synthesizes it into forms she can share with an audience. Purely creative, she creates music that can be as hard to grasp as a shape-shifter-but can adhere as tenaciously to the listener’s psychic dashboard as a plastic Virgin.

Timony grew up in Washington, D.C., where she attended Duke Ellington School for two years: “It was an incredible experience. I learned about life. I didn’t really learn a lot about writing and arithmetic and whatever,” she laughs, “but I learned about music and about people.” Her fellow students were largely into go-go, and the curriculum was mostly jazz and classical. “We just learned what you learn when you take jazz classes, which is scales and chords and jazz standards and stuff like that. I did a little bit of classical, but it was mostly jazz.

“I played guitar. Every afternoon we’d go into the guitar room and hang out. I don’t know how much about music I really learned in there, but I definitely practiced a lot-and just being around other kids that were musical, it was fun...It made me take music seriously. It was a creative environment. Not that anyone was doing anything like what I wanted to do, but just being in that environment was good.”

Outside her classroom, punk and indie rock were taking hold of the D.C. area. “There were bands like Kingface and Ignition and Soulside, and Fugazi was just starting.” After graduation from Ellington, Timony went to Boston for college but formed Autoclave around 1990 with D.C. friend Christina Billotte: “We played during the summer and when I was on vacation and stuff.” Although Autoclave, the first of many Timony projects, is long gone, it’s hard to pin down beginnings or endings to her other collaborations, including the duo Led Byrd with her longtime musical partner Ash Bowie (of Polvo), Shudder to Think bassist Nathan Larson’s Mind Science of the Mind, and the Spells with Sleater-Kinney’s Brownstein. But she’s best known for her work with Helium, which blends a punk ethos with a prog-rock vocabulary in a way that’s totally Timony. (She has said in previous interviews that the name “Helium” came from the joke that a woman is just a man who’s inhaled helium.)

The Golden Dove, her second solo album, was the quickest she’s ever recorded: four days in Boston and then two weeks at Sound of Music Studios in Richmond, Virginia, home to co-producer Al Weatherhead. Although she may once have created “concept” recordings, often based on dark fantasies about vampires, prostitutes, and other creatures doomed to walk at night, she says she doesn’t do that anymore. “I think sometimes when I’m making lyrics for songs, I definitely have a concept for a place that the song takes place in-I see it sort of visually, and then I just write them. Not that I spend that much time honing my lyrics-it’s all kind of fast. But I just kind of write descriptions of a situation or a place that I’ve imagined.”

Timony is exploring other ways of making her visions more visible. She’s worked on a couple of film soundtracks-and is even working on a film of her own: “I’m taking a super-8 class and making a super-8 movie, hopefully to show behind us while we perform. I want to start incorporating more visual stuff into the show.

“I think I tend to do stuff that’s visual. I never really thought of myself as a performer performer.”

Harp, Summer 2002

Howe Gelb, 'Sno Angel Like You

From the Washington City Paper, 4/17/06

Hallmark Hippie

By Pamela Murray Winters

Cross a Pentecostal with a pothead, and you’ll get one of three results: (a) a hypocritical wolf in lost-sheep’s clothing, (b) a Teresa of Avila in the making, or (c) Howe Gelb. The former Giant Sand frontman isn’t a cynical huckster hipster, or even a visionary future saint, but he’s one hell of a twisted desert philosopher, and his mix of bent platitudes, loping-limping guitars, and wayward melodies is both wholly sincere and deeply appealing. “If you can’t afford the fuel” for “a wagon that don’t run on air,” he sings on “Get to Leave,” the album’s opener, “pray you get the passion/To keep the spirit rolling and get on out of here.” That song evinces a desire to escape this world from its very first fade-in of rolling strums and monotone baritone. Then the gospel choir Voices of Praise—who hail from Canada but sound as if they were picked up, in ones and twos, hitching along the Ajo Highway—chorus with hillbilly harmonizing that’s two parts Earth to one part Heaven, and this road trip picks up momentum. Well, sorta: The bluesy “Hey Man” is so relaxed that you can imagine co-producer Dave Draves nudging Gelb with his big toe to get him through those opening chords, and Jeremy Gara’s drums suggest someone occasionally—but rhythmically—falling against the kit. Here Gelb wants you not to “panic your heart before the hard times start,” and his own laconic confidence is inspiring. But delightful as Gelb’s hippie Hallmark verses are, they’re topped by those of his late pal and Giant Sandmate Rainer Ptacek, whose “The Farm,” “That’s How Things Get Done,” and “Worried Spirits” Gelb covers here. They stand out eloquently from Gelb’s laid-back litany—“The Farm” in particular, which creates magic out of a wake-up tempo, snaking electric strings, and Gelb’s plaintive croon on the line “How did we ever survive with so much missing?” When the Voices of Praise chime in with “Someone, somewhere, some place, out there,” they hover and shimmer above the “plains of Kansas,” lighting up every mote of dust. That’s the strange thing about Gelb’s music—the way it powers itself. We glimpse an unseen generator on “The Voice Within,” on which you can feel Gelb pushing himself, laboring through this propulsive, fuzzed-out guitar blues, which only adds to the groove. Too soon, though, a few more tracks have worked their charms, and Gelb is talking about leaving again—not for another world, but to continue his work, “The Chore of Enchantment,” elsewhere. “One of these days,” he vows, “I’m going to get me a plan.” Howe, dude, why mess with perfection?

Magic Numbers CD review

From the Washington City Paper, 10/20/05

The Magic Numbers

By Pamela Murray Winters

Whether you like hype-bedecked London popsters Magic Numbers may depend on whether you liked Ken Jennings. The Jeopardy! champ, who fell into obscurity relatively quickly (what, no shared bunks with William Hung on The Surreal Life?), struck me as both preternaturally clever and appealingly sincere. The same can be said of Magic Numbers, whose "Mornings Eleven"--the opening track on the band's self-titled debut long-player--is a capsule history of pop tropes. After a fade-in opening with a guitar-and-bass thrum only slightly less repetitive than your average 5-year-old at Toys "R" Us, the crotch-gripped voice of Romeo--yes, Romeo--Stodart kicks in; a guitar trips precisely up the scale, and it all fades out after a minute and a half. It seems like the most economical pop song ever. But then: "Bah-buh-bah-buh-bah-buh-bah-buh-baaah/Ooo, ooo ooo…" We're at an Atomic Age prom night, everyone's waltzing, and when Romeo sings, "I would," and a woman's voice chimes in with "die for you," you can almost set your watch to the "Whoa-oh-oh-oh" that follows. Heck, the song would be textbook-perfect if it weren't for the chorus: Romeo, sister Michele Stodart, and Angela Gannon's road-worn harmonies sound less like the Beach Boys and more like--gasp!--the Grateful Dead. The disc's style shifts a couple of times more after that (did I mention there's a banjo?), and the result often veers perilously close to a Queen epic. You'd expect those Deadheading voices to come back on the countrified "The Mule," with its lazy backbeat and velvet-shrouded guitar notes, but instead producers Craig Silvey and Romeo go for the eerie cultishness of male-and-female unison vocals. And, of course, this song's a shape-changer, too, with washes of instrumental anger topped by a jittery ax solo. "Forever Lost" combines chugging, born-to-be-kinda-wild strings with Romeo's understated, lovelorn vocals and, unexpectedly, Sean Gannon's cymbal crashes. The innocence of the chorus--"Don't let the sun be the one to change you baby"--disappears when the '60s become the '80s with the brooding line "Looks like it all went wrong." But it comes back. The foursome--almost too adorably, they're brother-sister pairs--and Silvey keep the energy and inspiration high, whether they're building a pretty Cobain-Drake hybrid on "Which Way to Happy" ("Make time to show me your scars"), making R&B with Liam Gallagher–esque vocals on "Don't Give Up the Fight," or mixing up a country/gospel/waltz on "Try." It's tempting to see this sort of eclectic fusion as music by the numbers, but these Numbers make you believe in the healing power of pop--in portion-controlled doses that, although they fade quickly, leave you with a warm glow.

Fairport Convention, Birchmere, 2005

This turned out to be a somewhat infamous show; it was Dave Pegg's last show before leaving the American tour.

From Dirty Linen #119, Aug/Sep 2005

Fairport Convention
The Birchmere, Alexandria, VA
May 26, 2005

The demeanor of the four-piece acoustic Fairport Convention that took the stage at the Birchmere in late May was easygoing and low-key. Simon Nicol, Dave Pegg, Ric Sanders, and Chris Leslie greeted the crowd like old friends — which many of them believed themselves to be — and swung into that elderly composition “Walk Awhile” with aplomb.

True, Nicol was suffering from a case of “microphone droop,” which was quickly corrected with a minimum of Viagra quips. All the usual age-related jokes were in evidence; before “Over the Next Hill,” the nostalgia-laden Steve Tilston composition that gave its title to the group’s most recent studio album, the ever-droll Nicol warned the crowd not to omit that “next.” The group’s only original member introduced Richard Thompson’s “Crazy Man Michael” by saying that its composer “used to be in a band with my father, whose name was also Simon.”

Nicol was in especially fine voice that night — even if he did flub the “Michael” lyrics. (He didn’t do as badly as guest artist Vikki Clayton did at the Cropredy festival a few years ago, when she got so lost in “Matty Groves” that a couple of characters remained alive at the end of the song.) The group’s newest member, Leslie once again proved himself its magic ingredient. Playing fiddle, mandolin, and mandola and singing ably, Leslie also wrote many of the songs featured that night, including “I’m Already There,” inspired by a stained-glass window in Banbury that commemorates an Arctic explorer. A broad, Patrick O’Brien-esque number, it featured skirling fiddlework from Sanders. “Over the Falls” was penned by Leslie after the group detoured to let him see Niagara for the first time; it’s the story of a tightrope walker: “The tale of his fantastic feat,” said Leslie, before adding, “They were fantastic feet.” (To which Pegg appended, “Apart from the big grooves down the middle.”)

There were instrumentals — “Woodworm Swing,” in which drummer Gerry Conway’s absence was noted only when the foursome paused for his solo, and “Canny Capers,” and eventually “Dirty Linen” as the “Matty Groves” coda (during which Sanders yodeled into his electrified violin to produce some truly eerie effects). There were unexpected old-timers, such as a lively “Si Tu Dois Partir.” And there were the inevitables: “Groves” and “Meet on the Ledge.” The former, opening with a lovely acoustic-guitar solo by Nicol and then going into a fierce sort of reggae arrangement, seemed especially vitriolic, perhaps as violent as it’s ever been. The latter featured the Young Tradition’s Heather Wood, brought up from the audience, and Dave Lambert of the Strawbs — who, also in an acoustic configuration, provided a powerful set before Fairport’s.

Pegg, looking natty in a new goatee, provided a touch of his usual whimsy during “Ledge” when, on the line “The air is growing thin,” he brushed a hand against his bald pate. Longtime fans crave this anthem, whatever emotions it may bring; some of us are moved to tears when Nicol sings, “And now I see I’m all alone.” This is a group that has been touched by drama and dark comedy, tragedy and mere hardship. (In the latest turn, Pegg left the tour the day after this show, pleading exhaustion.) Wherever it may go next, however many more Cropredys, tours, personnel changes, and recordings there may be, those who have experienced a Fairport show have experienced a group that is British folk-rock’s beating, sometimes broken, always loving heart.

— Pamela Murray Winters
(Churchton, MD)

Ship's Company Chanteymen, Dirty Linen

From Dirty Linen #120 (Oct/Nov 2005)

The Ship’s Company Chanteymen

Singing the Life of
the High Seas

by Pamela Murray Winters

If Maryland — the small state that’s supposedly called “America in Miniature,” though this Maryland native has never heard anyone call it that — is known for anything, it’s maritime culture. The home of crabcakes and Old Bay Seasoning is also the home of the U.S. Naval Academy. It’s also home to many students and preservers of traditional culture, among them the Ship’s Company Chanteymen.

Back in the Dark Ages — actually, the early 1980s — Ship’s Company, the greater group of which we’re a part, was a living-history group on the USS Constellation in Baltimore,” said Myron Peterson, the Chanteymen’s business manager. The Constellation, built in 1853 and named for a 1797 frigate that was being dismantled in the same Norfolk, Virginia, facility, helped the African Squadron in the Mediterranean sea intercept slave ships bound for the Americas. Her crew was responsible for the first Union capture of a Confederate ship in 1861. Later, the great three-mast, 22-gun sailing ship helped protect Union ships from Confederate raiders. After she was decommissioned in 1955, she fell into disrepair. Initial efforts to restore her in accordance with 1797 standards failed, but from 1996 to 1999 she underwent a restoration to her 1861 condition and is now open for tours in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

She’s interpreted as a Civil War-era ship,” said Peterson, and this fact places her in the thick of chantey development. The songs flourished, wrote Howard Hornstein, from 1820 to 1920 and “mainly in America… Chanteys were used by sailors to lighten certain backbreaking tasks and to enliven their leisure hours. The words and music have been described as simple and direct, wild and spirited, salty and rough as a North Atlantic gale. In fact, they were a reflection of the sailors themselves.”

A massive physical effort has to be coordinated,” said Peterson of work aboard a ship. “Everybody has to do it together.” The tools of rhythm, melody, information, and emotion were thus combined to get everyone on the same page, as it were, via this oral art form.

Peterson knows whereof he speaks, although he said, “I’m the odd one to talk to, because I don’t follow folk music!” He explained, “I served 21 years in the United States Navy… Even if most [modern] sailors don’t appreciate sea chanteys, they say, ‘That’s old Navy stuff.’

I’ve been involved in living history for more than 30 years,” said the Illinois native. While working with the Constellation project, he and some others began singing to pass the time. The Ship’s Company Chanteymen formed in 1996, getting members by word of mouth: “It was kind of like a friend, and a friend of a friend, and next thing you know it was a number of people.”

Peterson and company are dedicated to preserving the chantey tradition by performance — and also by participatory gatherings. They hold sings at Maryland bars — the Royal Mile Pub in Wheaton, the Drummer’s Lot in Annapolis, and the Wharf Rat in Baltimore —three or four times a month.

Not all of the members go to every chantey sing,” Peterson explained. “There are eight of us. When we do performances we draw from that pool of eight. That means we don’t always have the same mix of voices.”

At the Royal Mile, the Drummer’s Lot, and the Rat, all are welcome to join in. Then again, the chantey tradition isn’t so inclusive. While the Chanteymen have female members — Darcy Nair sang the “Mingelay Boat Song” when the group lent members to a 2004 performance of the Victorian melodrama “Black Eyed Susan” by the D.C. area’s New Old Theater Company — Peterson says, “There is very limited documentation about women going to sea as sailors. As chanteymen, no. That’s why the two ladies that we have don’t generally sing chanteys. It just doesn’t sound right — that’s by their own admission.”

What is the right sound for a chantey? Peterson cites Stan Hugill’s belief that “volume and clarity are more important than tonal beauty.” Hugill (1906-1992) was to chanteys what Alan Lomax was to Appalachian ballads and Cecil Sharp was to morris dance — and more, for Hugill actually was a seaman and thus a participant as well as an observer. His 1961 collection Shanties from the Seven Seas is a valued source for songs.

Of course, he cleaned them up a bit, as does Peterson’s group. The repertoire of the Ship’s Company crew is generally family-friendly, but he understands the motivations of the original singers: “You have a group of men who’ve been together a long time. You have a limited number of topics. It can end up like a locker room!” He said that a friend at NASA has told him that discussions among astronauts on a mission, who are recorded all the time, sometimes get so rough that astronauts have commented that they should buy flowers for all the poor women doing the transcribing.

Asked why anyone should care about a bunch of old work songs, some inelegant, some with arcane terminology, Peterson mused, “Why should they care about old hymns? Why should they care about mining songs? Why do people still get together and sing songs about the IRA?

It’s an aural tradition,” he said, stressing the spelling of “aural.” And it hasn’t lost its relevance. “Many of us do sail. And knowing there’s a song for a specific job,” he says, they can sing as they do the task. By singing, people “get an understanding of life in a different era. It’s what we call ‘aha!’ moments.”

It’s also fun — and it must have been so in the days when the Constellation still sailed. Peterson noted that many sailors were illiterate, and that even the ones who could read had “a limited supply of reading material or opportunity. You may have books, but in a dark area, they couldn’t see what they were doing. A good chanteyman could also entertain as he sang.”

And, as Hornstein wrote, “If I were to venture a guess, I would suggest that the practice of voicing rhythmic sounds while working may be as old as mankind and probably is intrinsic to human nature.”

[For more information, or to order the Ship Company Chanteymen’s CD, Donkey Riding, visit the website at]

Myshkin's Ruby Warblers,Corvidae

From Dirty Linen #122 (Feb/Mar 2006)

Myshkin’s Ruby Warblers
Double Salt 02 (2005)

One of the great gifts of Myshkin — who was raised in the Midwest, came to fruition in New Orleans, now lives in Oregon, and seems to have multitudes of places in her blood — is her ability to evoke a sense of place on CD. Listening to Corvidae, you feel as if she and her bandmates, most notably fellow one-named bassist Sailor, who also produced the CD, are right in front of you, conjuring up their traveling tales. Corvidae is a worthy follow-up to the 2002 breakthrough by the “Gypsy torch punk chanteuse,” Rosebud Bullets. On “Caledonia,” she vows, “I’m gonna sit on this here egg, I’m gonna hatch a little paradise.” That’s just what she does here, weaving her amazing voice, sometimes deep and full, sometimes high and fluty, through a dance hall’s worth of jazzy instruments — sometimes, as on “Saving of the Day,” tinged with electronica that evokes eerie bells and sirens. Though the subjects are often dark, the music throbs with energy: Witness the joyful carnival sound, complete with a woozy trumpet, of “Human Cannonball” and the lively portrait of a pair of barflies in “Gypsytown.” The sense of danger is, thrillingly, always present in Myshkin’s dreams. “Pipeline” begins with people stealing gasoline as if it were diamonds or life-sustaining water — or maybe something more sinister, a drug that sustains and kills: “The fumes made you sick and the gas burned your skin/But we shouted and laughed like it was silver or silk we were bathing in,” she recounts, amid a waltz arrangement that is both giddy and melancholy. And then someone lights a match.

Pamela Murray Winters (Churchton, MD)

Joan Baez, Richard Thompson and Danny Thompson

I was really looking forward to this double bill, and I was somewhat disappointed. Newark, you're Newark, and that's fine. You don't have to be some kind of hoity-toity faux-Manhattan, you know? The people were so stuffy!

Joan Baez
Richard Thompson and Danny Thompson
New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Newark, NJ
October 28, 2005

False men and false leaders, fallen heroes and firmly held ideals were on Joan Baez’s mind at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in late October. It’s not that social concerns are anything new to the venerable performer, who jokes often about her age. One such quip came after she mentioned one of her albums. “Should I explain what an album is?” she asked archly, and then explained that in the early days of her career, “I just stood next to the big black-and-white dog and sang into the tuba.”
Age has served Baez well. It’s added richness to her voice: How on earth does one talk about her sound, her aspect, without referring to the archetype she created in the 1960s, that birdlike soprano flowing from between the wings of raven hair? Otherwise, she’s escaped all the usual traps. She’ll traffic in nostalgia, for sure, but only when she wants to, and not without a sense of the present. (The NJPAC crowd enjoyed a musical joke she’s done for several years, where at the end of “Diamonds and Rust,” she told her blue-eyed, “unwashed phenomenon” erstwhile lover: “If you’re offering me diamonds and rust/ I’ll take the Grammy.”) And, despite her penchant for onstage dancing — a hip-swiveling, “I Dream of Jeannie”-armed maneuver that’s so uncool it’s cool — she doesn’t embarrass herself by trying to pretend she’s anything but a grownup. Sixty-four-and-a-half at the time of this concert, she didn’t even seem to be denying the “half” — just making that age look as fine as it possibly could.
What was surprising was the thematic cohesiveness of her set. She’s done many of these songs over the past few years, from “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Diamonds and Rust” to Steve Earle’s “Christmas in Washington” and “Jerusalem.” Here, though, she brought them all together as a sort of musical revue designed to remind her listeners that there are youth in harm’s way and snakes in the henhouse. In a beautifully realized version of Elvis Costello’s faux-Civil War parlor song “The Scarlet Tide,”she added a line about bringing the boys back home, which made more pointed and contemporary the stanza: “Man goes beyond his own decision/ Gets caught up in a mechanism/ Of swindlers who act like kings/ And brokers who break everything.”
Not all of her choices were wise — particularly giving over part of the set to two cringeworthy poems, one written in African- American “dialect” — but, for the most part, she upheld and even surpassed that worthy image she created nearly half a century ago. Accompanied by two longtime band members — Graham Mabe on bass, guitar, and backing vocals, and Erik Dallapenna on guitar, lap steel, mandolin, and backing vocals — she might have rocked the house, if this house were able to be “rocked.”
NJPAC’s ornate setting — six balconies! — comes off less rich than nouveau riche; whoever paid for its showy splendor seems to have also ordered a cadre of audience members who seemed to find it beneath them to show too much adulation. Baez garnered some laughs and the requisite, if faint, singalongs for hits like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” but Richard Thompson and Danny Thompson, who were co-billed with Baez and had been first to take the stage, suffered from the torpor. There was nothing wrong with the Thompsons’ performance, which featured a chance to witness the extraordinary synergy between the unrelated guitarist and bassist. Maybe the music they offered was too complex for the strangely inert atmosphere. Richard Thompson’s self-deprecating wit — about Front Parlour Ballads, he said, “Rolling Stone said, ‘Extraordinary is not the word for this record’ ” — fell on ears unattuned to subtlety. The encore almost had to be begged for, as three or four Thompson fans stood and clapped vehemently over a wash of jewelry-rattling by the masses. One of these fans complained during the break: “Thompson sang, ‘Crawl back!’ and looked for us to answer, and when I sang back, ‘Crawl back!’ the guy in front of me turned around and glared.”
— Pamela Murray Winters
(Churchton, MD)

Lisa Moscatiello, Dirty Linen, 2006

Now that I've got iTunes, I'm listening to Arthur Loves Plastic's Troubled--remixes of Trouble From the Start. "Drink're all alone." Kinda creeping me out. Great stuff.

From Dirty Linen #122 (Feb/Mar 2006)

Lisa Moscatiello

Making Trouble

by Pamela Murray Winters

"I'm purposely giving my CD away to people I know have nothing to do with folk music,” said Lisa Moscatiello of her latest release, Trouble From the Start. “Like security guards at the Library of Congress.”

That’s where the singer has her day job. Her better-known career, her musical vocation — like that institution — speaks volumes about her diverse endeavors. When she was starting out as a teenager, she built a reputation in the Washington, D.C., area as a Celtic trad singer. Then she joined the folk-rock group the New St. George. Not too shocking so far — but next she launched a solo career, with an album that contained both the traditional “Bogie’s Bonnie Belle” and Morrissey’s “Driving Your Girlfriend Home.” She brought the B-52s’ “Revolution Earth” to the world-music band Whirligig. She subbed for Susan McKeown in Johnny Cunningham’s theatrical piece, Peter and Wendy.

Not enough variety for you? Try her move into the techno world with vocals on the recordings of Bev Stanton, a.k.a. Arthur Loves Plastic — including that languid alto rubbing up against a jitters-inducing electronic tempo on a version of Sandy Denny’s “By the Time It Gets Dark.”

For years a staunch singer-not-songwriter, Moscatiello began writing with then-girlfriend Stanton. Then she turned around and made a fairly straightforward folk-duo recording with fiddler Rosie Shipley. And now, the genre she calls “acid cabaret.”

I have fights with my manager over whether to send it to folk or jazz stations,” she says of the eclectic Trouble, released in September 2005. “So if I have to drop it out of airplanes like MREs….”

Those who catch her CARE packages will encounter a number of songs that were originally done by Arthur Loves Plastic. (Of working again with Stanton, Moscatiello said, “We were always like best friends. We’ve never been afraid to tell each other that something sucks…We look forward to seeing each other and working together.” And, since the breakup, she laughed, it’s a lot easier to work together.) In an unusual approach, Moscatiello’s band, whimsically dubbed the Space Dots after Kennedy Space Center’s “ice cream of the future,” performed songs that Stanton had originally created on her computer.

Take, for example, Stanton’s melancholy yet hopeful “New Year’s.” “This was actually one of the really challenging ones,” Moscatiello recalled. “It was hard to get the right feel for it…Marco [Delmar], the producer, kept saying that this is a really good song, this has a great hook, and it’s really important.”

In the studio, “we played it to Bev’s electronic drums. Robbie [Magruder] actually played exactly what those drums did. We found the right tempo — ’cause that’s the tempo that she wrote it for — but I actually had Robbie come in and do something that’s really hard for a drummer to do. It’s hard for a drummer to play drums over music that’s already been done. But because Robbie is such a pro, he just came in, and he did another track that just has a lot more humanity, a lot more personality to it.”

Moscatiello has high praise for the Space Dots, particularly Magruder, who’s best known for his work with Mary Chapin Carpenter. “I wanted [the band] to be a hybrid. I knew I didn’t want a jazz guitarist.” Enter Erik Wenberg, former lead guitarist of the rock band emmet swimming, whom Moscatiello praises for his “juicy, hooky guitar lines.” Her bassist, Jon Nazdin, and keyboardist, Harry Appleman, are “more jazzy.” And the resulting music is hard to define —“acid cabaret” comes close — but it’s easy to enjoy.

Moscatiello laughed about a student booker for a recent college show who said: “I actually like your music!” Backhanded compliment aside, the former wunderkind from Takoma Park, Maryland, now in her late 30s, is coming to enjoy younger audiences. “I’m not what’s current and hip that they’re listening to, but that’s okay. I’m old enough now that I’m not intimidated by people that age. A lot of kids that age, their parents listen to interesting music.

I’ve heard that there’s a rebellion against what they’re fed by big corporations,” she noted. Count folk among other “indie” musics: “I think there are people who would enjoy folk, but they think it’s gonna be boring.”

To dissuade that crowd, Trouble offers a rich, heart-rending version of Polly Bolton’s “Exile,” a song Moscatiello last sang in the tumultuous final days of the New St. George in the 1990s. It represents a coming-to-terms, of sorts: The group played a delightful reunion show in 2004, and Moscatiello sometimes sings with NSG bandleader Jennifer Cutting’s Ocean Orchestra. She also goes out as a duo with cellist Fred Lieder and sings at holiday time with musicians from Maggie Sansone’s Maggie’s Music label… After all, why be tied down?

Moscatiello has no trouble finding the common thread in the music she likes. “I went through this period where I listened to this Loretta Lynn greatest-hits album for like an entire year. She did so much with so little.

I was drawn to traditional folk music because it was really simple and to the point.” But it’s also mysterious: “All those British folk ballads, you can read whatever you want in it. Rosie [Shipley] and I did a song called ‘Here’s a Health to All True Lovers’: ‘The cocks are crowing/ But we are servants, and I must away.’ What does it mean? ‘Servants’ to mortality?” Then she notes the economy of pop music: “ ‘You can’t hurry love/ You just have to wait’—You can just project your own imagination onto [those words].”

About Stanton’s work, she said: “A lot of techno music is kind of vibe-oriented and ambient. She does her share of that. But she grew up listening to Shirley Bassey and the Fifth Dimension.” Moscatiello calls such music a “rapier-like musical statement — not necessarily with poetic lyrics. It’s poetic in a different way. It’s like haiku.” (What she doesn’t like: the sort of fare Stanton calls “psycho-babble set to music.”)

Simplicity and directness are becoming more and more important to Moscatiello. She’s recently become more open about being a gay woman, for example. And one of her biggest struggles is with the sort of “enforced listening” we in the music business fall prey to: Sometimes, she admitted, “I can’t tell if I like something.”

I listen to things I enjoyed when I was a child, because I don’t have that judgmental attitude toward it. I like to let myself loose and do what I want.”

Pondering her rebellious nature, she emitted a rich chuckle. “I should be listening to the current crop of singer/songwriters, but I’d rather listen to Emerson Lake & Palmer!”

James McMurtry, Dirty Linen

Fun guy, and one of the best live performers around.

IOTA gets a cameo in this story. The other club alluded to--where dancing is illegal--is also local. It's not the Birchmere, which is famous for its Quiet Please! policy.

From Dirty Linen #122 (Feb/Mar 2006)

James McMurtry
Looking for Action
by Pamela Murray Winters

James McMurtry is always looking for action.

He got some in late October, at IOTA Club & Café in Arlington, Virginia. The small room was chockablock with revelers of all sorts: Among those shaking their tail feathers at the foot of the stage were a pacifist Quaker; an Israeli tourist waving a sign identifying himself, in a quote from McMurtry’s “Choctaw Bingo,” as a “bad-ass Hebrew”; and an off-duty waitress from a nearby music venue best described as a “listening room.”

Listening rooms are impossible,” McMurtry declared later, in a post-show interview in the club’s basement office. He then went on to tell a story about a venue that had tented signs on its tables requesting that the audience remain quiet. “I made a paper airplane out of one of those table tents. And then I told them, ‘If somebody doesn’t dance, the fire marshal’s gonna come shut this place down.’ And they got up and started dancing.”

When he went to settle up, he said, he was met by a peeved manager. “He said, ‘I’m not happy.’ I said, ‘Why not? People seemed to be having a good time.’ He said ‘I think you know why I’m not happy.’ I said, ‘Oh, the paper airplane, and the fire marshal…Oh, I get it — you’re runnin’ a church, not a bar! I’ve violated your doctrine!’ ”

Try the devil’s-advocate routine, insist that with lyrics like the ones McMurtry pens — especially now that he’s a “political singer” (about which, more later) — people should be able to hear them, and you’ll get a retort like this one: “Listen to the record, man. A live show is about movement. Music is kinetic, to me. There are some songs that are not meant for dancing, and most people won’t. They’ll sit there and listen. It’ll get quiet; they’ll be able to hear.

If you wanna get down front and center, move. Dance. ’Cause that’s what front and center is for.”

McMurtry, now approaching his mid-40s, has thought long and hard about this stuff. And about a lot of other stuff. And he’s not shy about telling you what he thinks. A soft-spoken man, he doesn’t do the hail-fellow-well-met routine. Accounts of other interviews suggest a difficult artist, possibly a taciturn interviewee. In fact, he’s exacting, impassioned without histrionics, and funny in a very, very dry way.

Gracious, too, to sit down for an interview after he and his band had done 20 shows in 20 nights, a record for him.

The story has often been told that McMurtry’s father, novelist Larry McMurtry, helped him in the biz by giving his tape to John Mellencamp, who got him signed to Columbia. “Columbia worked it pretty hard, and it got to 30 on the Billboard charts,” McMurtry recalled of his debut, 1989’s Too Long in the Wasteland. And then what? “I thought I’d get a lot bigger off of that. I was convinced that I’d be different, that I wouldn’t be like the thousands of people who got signed that year and wound up getting dropped three years later, which is what did happen.

But in the long run, it’s better, ’cause if I had succeeded with that first record, I probably wouldn’t have bothered to get good at this. I wouldn’t have had to, really. I was a pretty good writer, but I wasn’t much of a performer. I was an okay acoustic guitar player, but I couldn’t do anything with a Telecaster. I’ve had to learn all that because as the budget shrank, I had to do more of it myself. It got where if I wanted electric guitar in my live shows, I was gonna have to play it myself. That was difficult, because I knew I was gonna suck for a while.”

Asked the inevitable — “When did you stop sucking?” — he deadpanned, “I still have occasional suckage, but for the most part I got my suckin’ done a few years ago.”

And how. The critical acclaim and fan following he’s garnered over the last decade and a half has reached a new height with 2005’s Childish Things. He’s probably getting more press than ever as well, a lot of it courtesy of a song called “We Can’t Make It Here.”

The song moves deftly, cinematically, through images of America’s disabled, disenfranchised, dispirited, and ultimately it points a finger at a perpetrator:

And that’s how it is

That’s what we got

If the president wants to admit it or not

You can read it in the paper

Read it on the wall

Hear it on the wind

If you’re listening at all

Get out of that limo

Look us in the eye

Call us on the cell phone

Tell us all why…

I put it out as a free download about a week before the [2004] presidential election,” McMurtry said of the song, “because I was trying to get something out there that might influence somebody’s thinking. And nobody else seemed to be doing it except Steve Earle. And Steve Earle got a whole record out before the election. I thought, well, I could at least try one song.

I had to get over my fear of letting my own politics drag my art down. ’Cause a lot of people do. But I had to risk it, because I really don’t like the direction this administration’s trying to take us in… The war. Their use of fear to control the masses. I don’t like that. It’s not just the administration; it’s the whole country. We allowed that to happen.”

So he got mad. Mad enough that he now contributes to a blog on (Replied one reader, named Todd, in response to a McMurtry diatribe on the president’s speech on a possible flu pandemic: “You are one pissed-off dude. I knew I liked you.”) Mad enough that he developed his first overtly political song after seeing a vet in a wheelchair on a street corner.

I was vocal about [politics] personally, but I kept them out of my songs because I was afraid to — I was afraid I’d wind up writing sermons. So I didn’t really try, and I should have. A lot of people should have. That’s kind of what got us in the mess we're in.

I don’t know if a song itself would have made a difference, but if everybody, not just songwriters, was more involved in politics, paid more attention — vote on referendums, vote on propositions, whatever. We can’t afford to stay out of it anymore. We got used to things being fairly normal. My parents weren’t particularly active; they voted in presidential elections, and that was about it. And we got by with that for a long time, but now it’s gotten so weird, we’ve gotta stay on top of it.”

In the case of “We Can’t Make It Here,” a single song may have made a difference. In August 2005, McMurtry played the song in Dallas at the national meeting of Veterans for Peace, which was attended by a mother whose son had been killed in the war. Cindy Sheehan, said McMurtry, “decided then to go down to Crawford the next day. And the veterans sent a platoon down there with her.”

He was plenty riled up about the media coverage of Sheehan and her Camp Casey compatriots. “The press referred to them as placard-wielding anti-war activists, but they didn’t note that they were also veterans, for the most part… The press could get their minds around ‘grieving mom,’ but they couldn’t get their minds around ‘vet for peace.’ They didn’t want to deal with that. It didn’t fall into an easy slot.”

Of course, writers often simplify things for the sake of a story, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. McMurtry’s no fan of that sort of corner-cutting: “I put stuff in my songs all the time, [for which] nobody’s gonna know what the hell I’m talking about.”He cited Childish Things’ “See the Elephant,” a song which had its genesis in a firearms magazine. “On the back page of Guns and Ammo, there’s a writer by the name of Jeff Cooper — Colonel Jeff Cooper — and sometimes he will digress from firearms and just write about things he’s seen that he doesn’t see anymore. He’s been around for a while — he’s a World War II vet, I think. He said ‘see the elephant’ was a euphemism for a first sex act with a prostitute. Before World War II, when the country was a lot more rural. So it has that meaning.

My mother also said that during the Civil War, in the Army of Northern Virginia, ‘see the elephant’ meant your first taste of battle. I didn’t know that when I wrote the song. I just had a kid that, he wants to go get some action, he’s sick of working on the farm, and there might be a war, he doesn’t want to go to war without seeing the elephant.”

Sometimes an elephant’s just an elephant. Or is it? Another song from Childish Things, “Memorial Day,” came in for criticism from The Village Voice, which called it “a hokey apple-pie anthem.”

It’s from the point of view of a kid in the 60s,” McMurtry patiently explained, “going to a ghastly family gathering at a time when Memorial Day for most Americans, despite the war going on, it was thought of as another three-day weekend — gotta go see Grandma. It’s just sort of a timepiece. It’s not really meant to be antipatriotic or patriotic, either. It’s just the story.”

Well, maybe. But there’s a hint of social commentary in McMurtry’s description of the song, if not in the song itself. And “Holiday,” which closes the album, ties together McMurtry’s themes of local nostalgia and global political awareness with an image of an Iowa National Guard member at an airport:

The place sure looked different in 1968

When he travelled with Mom, first time on a plane

To visit some kin, he's forgotten their names

But he remembers the soldiers, still in
their teens

In their spit-polished shoes and those
pressed army greens

With the creases so sharp and their faces so smooth

But their eyes looked so heavy he wondered how they could move

Now he's got that same look, like his insides are black

He's in his mid-forties and he has
to go back

McMurtry said that “very, very little” autobiography sneaks into his songs. The fellow whose lyrics are populated by large, extended families is an only child. Born in Texas, he spent some of his growing-up years in Waterford, Virginia, near Leesburg. He went to college in Arizona for a time but ultimately returned to Texas.

It seemed like in the East,” he noted, “people would get educated just for the hell of it. People go to school, go to grad school as an activity, as something to feed their minds as much as anything else. In the West, people go to school to learn a trade, basically. Even if you’re majoring in English — I majored in English, and my cousins would say, ‘Are you going to be a teacher?’ Because that’s what English majors did; that’s what you could actually apply that to. I’d say, ‘Naw, I’m just doing it because I don’t know what else to study right now. Maybe I’ll figure it out later.’ ”

And he did, with album after album and a growing reputation for his literate, energetic songs. He’s not prolific: “I write when I have to make a record, pretty much.” Often he puts songs together “out of the scraps I’ve collected over the years...Sometimes I’ll scan through my computer files and sing things in my head and think, ‘Maybe that goes with that’ and start moving pieces around.

A whole song can change on a rhyme. And that’s okay. You gotta give a song its head. I think that was probably what I did wrong with the other political songs I was trying to write — I didn’t let the song find itself. That’s what’ll happen sometimes if you try to put your idea across through a song. You’ll start forcing it, and sometimes you can’t do that.”

You can’t even always agree with everything expressed in it. “The songs’ll turn on you,” he said. “They’ll make you look like a Nazi sometimes.” He recalled a song called “Safe Side,” about “a tight-assed Anglo tourist going to Mexico and being scared out of his mind.” He must have embodied the character too well, because, he says, “Tish Hinojosa said, ‘I’ve got some friends down in the valley that want to know what the hell you mean by that.’ I said I meant I needed one song for the record to be done, so I sat down and started writing, and that’s what I got.”

He’s not oblivious to the power of words — all the more reason why there are some of his songs that he doesn’t want radio programmers to play. One is “12 O’Clock Whistle,” off 1997’s It Had To Happen.

I got in trouble with ‘12 O’Clock Whistle’ because there’s a reference to ‘nigger town.’ And some idiot would play it on the radio! So imagine that you’re black and you’re driving through Dayton, Ohio, and it’s rush hour, and you hear ‘la-la-la-nigger-la—’ And you call the radio station, pissed off, and you get some white guy going... ” Here, he affected what can only be termed a pompous Yankee voice: “ ‘Well, in the context of the song, sir…’ Fuck that. Don’t put it on the radio. No. No. Don’t put that on the radio. I had no idea some moron would do that.

I had [other DJs], like in East Texas, playing it because they thought, ‘Oh, great, we don’t have to be politically correct anymore.’ Yes, you do. It’s not so much ‘politically correct’ as you gotta be polite. And you don’t throw that word around on the radio. If another word would have worked in the song, I’d have used it. But that was kind of autobiographical; it was straight out of my grandmother’s mouth. Which was what the song was about. It wasn’t so much about race relations as about poison of various sorts. The way we poison our kids in the white world is we had grandmothers that thought it was okay to say ‘nigger’ in front of the kids. But you’re not gonna get that driving through Dayton at rush hour.”

With such complexities in his music throughout his career, it’s surprising that people are so shocked by the overt political turn his music has recently taken. On his website, one fan reacted to “We Can’t Make It Here” as follows: “James you lost my respect. Every time I pay money to go see you in concert, I don’t pay money to hear you campaign for the democratic party or bash the President…Sure you have freedom of speech, but I don’t go to hear political opinions or views, I go to hear good music that does not have anything to do with politics.”

I’m gaining more [fans] than I’m losing,” McMurtry said, as a result of his recent work. “Politics is one of the things that has always been in music. If you don’t want politics in music, you can’t listen to Woody Guthrie, or Merle Haggard, or Toby Keith. Be careful what you wish for.”

So who are these people who listen? An awful lot of them are men — the IOTA crowd was probably at least 3-to-1 male-to-female. “Yeah,” said McMurtry, with a weary sigh. “It’s a drag, too.”

His fan base, he said, is “different in other parts of the country. In Texas we get a lot more frat kids. They tend to bring dates. That’s a spillover from Robert Earl Keen doing ‘Levelland.’ So we get a lot of them in there. A lot of ’em don’t like my politics much, but they show up anyway.” That song also appeals to a lot of working-class folk: “There’s a huge set that’ll leave right after ‘Levelland,’ ’cause that’s their song. They gotta get up and get to work.”

He picked up a certain kind of fan after a song called “Where’s Johnny,” from Candyland, hit it big on AAA radio. It’s about a sensitive loner who’s retreated from the world. “My houses started filling up with prematurely balding guys,” McMurtry wryly recalled. “And they all wanted to hear that song. We called them ‘Johnnies.’ We still do. And I guess some of ’em were gay, but some of ’em just couldn’t get a date. And it turned out some of ’em were married, ’cause their grown daughters started showing up about five years ago, and then it got a little more interesting.”

He probably had some policy wonks in the IOTA crowd, just a few miles from the White House. Bernie Sanders, an Independent, has adopted “We Can’t Make It Here” as the song of his 2006 Senate campaign. And the album Childish Things is number 1 on the Americana charts at press time. It looks like McMurtry, after too long in the music-biz wasteland, is finally getting a share of the attention he deserves.

Asked whether he worries that songs like “We Can’t Make It Here” will become dated, he replied, “I hope they do. It’d be nice to be able to have a regular old hit song!”

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The Great Unknowns, 2005

I see a lot of established performers and a few on their way down, so seeing this aptly named band, as I did when it opened for Indigo Girls at the 9:30 Club, was a real treat.

From Dirty Linen #121 (Dec. 2005/Jan. 2006)

The Great Unknowns

Presenting the
Great Unknowns

Daemon DAM19046 (2004)

Unknowns”? Pretty much, although these children of the swampy side of the American South did a lot to change that when they toured with labelmates Indigo Girls in 2005. But it’s “Great” that’s the operative word here. Becky Warren has one of those born-for-alt-country voices: big and meaty, with a vulnerable little vibrato here and there. She also pens evocative songs that keep to the “universal” side of the usual roots tropes. Take “Round Hill,” which combines three standard themes — the love-hate relationship with small towns, the lure of the road, and the soldier’s story — without allowing any of them to become clichés. Even Pierce Woodward’s banjo sounds fresh. “Something to Do” is the sort of lonely-woman-scorned lament, set to a rock beat, that some folks think Lucinda Williams invented. “Forever” combines a resolute rhythm with an accordion that snakes in and out like a wayward emotion. And I love the interplay of 50s-sounding electric guitar and 60s-sounding organ on the torchy “Don’t Come Home.” It took the intervention of established musicians like Rose Polenzani (who sings harmony on “Presenting”) and the Indigos to give this group of refugees from defunct bands — besides Warren, the Unknowns are drummer Andy Eggers, bassist Altay Guvench, and guitarist Michael Palmer — a hand up to the footlights, a move that makes the buddy system seem like one of the best things the music biz has going for it these days.

Pamela Murray Winters
(Churchton, MD)

Ani DiFranco, 2005

A quick word, for the record, about Ani. I've heard a lot of negative stuff about her, stuff about her attitude, etc. When I interviewed her, she was forthcoming and insightful. But what really impressed me, because of my big ol' ego, is that, after the interview, SHE asked me about ME: how I got into this line of work, etc. This hardly ever happens, and I was impressed.

From Dirty Linen #121, Dec. 2004/Jan. 2005

Ani Di Franco
The Work of Art
by Pamela Murray Winters

It’s hard to imagine that Ani DiFranco is 35. Two years older than Jesus. An age at which you move into that demographic bracket that ends with an invitation to join the AARP.

Funny that this dynamic artist — so identified with youth and rebellion — has by now spent more than half her life on her own. She moved out of her family’s house at 15. She released her first album the month she turned 20. She started a company at an age when many people are still living in Mom’s basement or working on a bachelor’s. And just before turning 35, at the end of July, she played her last concert — at least for a while.

The occasion was the Floyd World Music Festival in Floyd, Virginia. DiFranco was the last act on the three-day festival’s main stage; organizers sold “Ani-only” tickets to some attendees. But unlike the situation at some festivals, where the presence of an artist of DiFranco’s stature (in fame, mind you, not inches) can turn the other performers into de facto opening acts for the star, the Floyd crowd welcomed her with the same enthusiasm they’d offered Railroad Earth, J.D. Crowe, and Dread Clampitt.

DiFranco, relaxing before the show in the charmingly appointed tent that served as her dressing room — complete with a guard at its canvas doorway — was unfazed by any suggestion that she was any different from anyone else on Floyd’s stages.

“I played Falcon Ridge last week. At Falcon Ridge, they love me,” she remarked — not self-servingly, but with the same warm enthusiasm and keen intelligence with which she seems to approach, well, everything. “[The regular festival attendees] turn up and a whole bunch of other people do, too, and it’s good for them, and they have the mechanism to deal with that. I get to get in touch with my roots and my folk family, and it sort of helps the festival.

“Last year I played Clearwater, Pete and Toshi [Seeger]’s, the festival they started, and I played that a few times over the past 10 years. And I remember a bunch of years ago, showing up there, and there were lots of teenagers, lots of young people. And the old folkies were like, ‘Wow, what a thrill! Thank you for bringing new life to this scene!’ And I think that’s really cool because I think especially folk music, world music — it’s indigenous, subcorporate, community-based real art that I think young people would do well to get turned onto, because we’re just so saturated with commercial music that you really have to get pulled for whatever reason to the alternative. So if I can be that reason, I relish that role.”

Listening to her music and reading the few biographical details that have come out, one can see that DiFranco’s individuality and creative passion run deep. The Buffalo, New York, native was “singing and playing guitar in public before she was old enough to drive,” according to her website. She got her first guitar at age 9, and she figured it out on her own before taking up lessons with Michael Meldrum, who soon became her mentor and manager as well as her teacher. Playing in noisy venues, she quickly learned to be heard, just as unamplified folkies for many years had had to do: She developed not only a bold voice but also a percussive, almost violent acoustic-guitar technique.

Her parents’ divorce precipitated her decision to move out at age 15. She was fortunate to meet various mentors in those early years, as well as to earn a living with such jobs as waitressing and construction work. Her decision to start her own label rose from a simple desire: She wanted to be heard.

Asked “Has your business plan worked out as expected?” DiFranco allowed: “Well, I guess I didn’t have a business plan.” She erupted into laughter. “There was no real long-term strategy at work. It was just a moment-by-moment problem-solving… I don’t have an affinity for big corporations or big business; how can I do it without them? So I guess from the beginning, it was more about what I didn’t want to do. I know I don’t want to do this. The rest — I have no idea. It just developed over time.

“The first few years it was just what was written on my CDs or tapes that I made: ‘Righteous Babe Records.’ There was no office or staff. That just sort of grew organically over that last decade. I suppose there was always the dream that once the label existed, it would grow beyond me and become a home for other artists, which it has. That feels like, if I had any expectation or hope, that that was probably it. That it could not just be a way for me to release records independently, but maybe actually become an independent entity for peripheral music and musicians.”

“She’s willing to be in the label biz for the long haul, and won’t sell out, financially or artistically, to larger labels,” wrote Al Riess in Dirty Linen #54. That’s held true over the last decade. In addition to her own music, her Righteous Babe label has given a home to such diverse voices as Hamell on Trial, Drums & Tuba, Toshi Reagon, Andrew Bird, and Sekou Sundiata, who was one of her teachers at the New School for Social Research in the early 90s.

The signing decisions come from Ani — “so far,” she noted. “They’re all my friends or people I intersect with along the way that intrigue me and maybe don’t have independent distribution and are of like minds. So it all comes through my travels and my musical interests. So far.”

The “so far”s are evidence of a self-awareness that, if it existed in her earlier years, was often overlooked by interviewers bent on stamping her with an image. This mature DiFranco comes through in her response to a question about whether she’d sign with a major label today if given a chance. “No, no, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t,” she vowed, then, with laughter in her voice: “But if there’s one thing I know, it’s that I’m gonna change. And often!

“But my feeling about the music industry is my feeling about any big business: that it just has fundamentally different priorities in this world than I do.”

Here DiFranco drew a line that could stand for a central fact about her vision: She can distinguish between souls and deeds, sinners and sins, the individual and the group. “There’s a lot of good people in the music industry working for major labels. People who love music. People who want to help musicians, do something good in the world. But the system itself, I think, has a profit motivation that I don’t respect, I guess. And that I don’t think is conducive to cultural diversity, you know, to true art. To the interests of people and creativity. So I guess that feeling remains the same for me. And as our culture and our country just becomes more co-opted by corporate monopolies, on every level — from media, food, and the government. I am more and more adamantly opposed to this sort of corporate stranglehold over our culture and our society.”

But…she’s a businesswoman, right? Whether she sees herself that way or not. And surely she must think about what her audience, if not a larger capitalist system, wants from her? “Not at all,” she said firmly. “Not at all. I guess I am blessed as an artist — that’s just so not — it’s just not important. That’s just the road down.”

DiFranco, never one to go off half-cocked or to make careless mistakes, seemed to struggle to articulate her feelings: “Even making a record, taking decent songs and trying to make them radio-friendly in their recording: I just have — Whatever it is, I just —

“I’m luckily not all that invested in that kind of thing. And I have been lucky in that just my immediacy with what I do has contacted enough people, and Righteous Babe’s paying the rent and keeping the lights on. Although, you know, more and more there are financial issues and we’re sort of walking a line there at Righteous Babe, because people are buying less and less records — mine included. And mine are the ones that pay the bills. We lose money on everything else we put out. So it’s a real fine line and we’re trying to be creative in other ways. But I’m not gonna tailor my art to business purposes.”

This is reminiscent of Lillian Hellman’s famous quote: “I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions.” And while DiFranco’s made her own luck, in many ways, it’s not without a struggle to be understood. In 1997, responding to a Ms. article that named her one of “21 feminists for the 21st century,” she wrote a lengthy letter in which she thanked the magazine but also chided it for missing the point in celebrating her sales figures: “I sell approximately 2.5% of the albums that a Joan Jewelanis Morrisette sells and get about 0.5% of the airplay royalties, so obviously if it all comes down to dollars and cents, I’ve led a wholly unremarkable life… Imagine how strange it must be for a girl who has spent 10 years fighting as hard as she could against the lure of the corporate carrot and the almighty forces of capital, only to be eventually recognized by the power structure as a business pioneer.”

She’s even been unafraid to risk alienating some of her fan base, as she did in the late 1990s when, after establishing a strong gay and bisexual following, she married a man. (The marriage has since ended.) Awarded the Gay and Lesbian American Music Association’s 1998 OutMusic Award, given to an artist who has “advanced the music of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered artists,” she had to dodge protesters to deliver an emphatic, heartfelt speech about the freedom to love whomever you want to love.

As a GLAMA judge, I was present for DiFranco’s 1999 speech. Asked about this, and about whether people have expectations of her as an artist, she, characteristically, parsed my question before continuing: “Or expectations of my lover, as an artist? I’m sure people still do, but I guess I am less and less aware, less and less invested in that at all. I just completely tune it out now. Completely. And I’m happier. For every person that has any opinion about me, it’s a different one. So I couldn’t begin to appease all of the images or expectations that people have of me, even if I wanted to. That’s not really a way to live — for anyone else, let alone thousands and thousands of people you don’t know.”
But she has no trouble understanding why people care so much. “To me it feels natural, because I am an avid, devoted person myself. I’m just a very passionate, dedicated type. You know? So it makes sense that I meet people there. What I put out is what comes back, which I think is sort of true for everyone.”
Now she’s taken another bold step: off the road and away from the fans. An announcement on her website on July 21, 2005, just days before the Floyd show, shocked her fans: “The Little Folksinger Takes a Break From the Road: After 15 years of non-stop touring, often performing over 100 gigs per year, Ani DiFranco will take a hiatus from live performance, after the current July tour ends, until summer 2006.”

The hiatus was precipitated by a growing problem with tendinitis, which threatened to cause permanent nerve damage if she didn’t let up on all that strumming. “That was my cue,” she said of the condition. “For a long time I’ve been thinking — in addition to other projects, like a collaborative album with this person or that, that just never happen, I’d love to travel to places in the world where my music doesn’t take me. When you’re constantly touring, you just want to go home! Your time off, there’s no way you’re getting on a plane to Africa.

“So for a long time I’d been dreaming of having that kind of time, and it just seemed like my hands and my wrist were saying, ‘Now! Do it now!’ ”

A year is a long time in such a busy life. “I don’t know — maybe I’ll freak out in six months and say, ‘Book me some shows!’ It’s all so new.” But being off the road doesn’t mean she won’t still be making music. In addition to finishing up an album she’s produced for Hamell on Trial, there’s “a new record of mine, which is maybe half done.

“And then I have all kinds of other album project ideas that have been on the back burner for years. Like going out to see my old friend Utah Phillips again — we’ve been talking about making album number three together for a while, so I figure this will be the year.”

Ask to stretch out a little, into the realm of speculation — “What subjects and styles haven’t you tackled that you really feel drawn toward?” — she took some time to think about an answer. “Well, I do have various album concepts for my own more solitary creative adventures. Like, I’d like to make an instrumental record. Which is a very different context for me, since I’m so idea-based and word-based, the writing is one of my main tools. So to put that down and make an instrumental record intrigues me.

“And I think — maybe this is the same record — but I’ve been thinking for years of making a record to put people to sleep! Some of my favorite music — I’m an insomniac, just real trouble sleeping, all the time. So music I can put on and maybe even fall asleep to is some of my favorite music. Music that can transport me to a really serene place I value very highly. And I think I’ve spent my life making music to WAKEPEOPLEUP!” — that burst of laughter again — “I think attempting the opposite would be something I’d like to do.”

She’d like to follow up on a long-time plan for collaborating: “Greg Brown and I have been talking for years about collaborating on songs and making records together. We even sent each other a couple of cassettes; we did a little volley at one point, a year or two ago. But it’s hard, when you don’t live near each other and you’re both on your own little hamster wheels, to co-author. That’s so foreign to me. I think that for most folk singers it’s a very solitary process, the writing. But jeez, if we could get that collaboration happening, I’d be thrilled. I don’t what of these ideas I can manifest in the next year, but…”

Time was running short, and the temptation, in this rare interview, to look for some great insight, spurred the rather rash question: How can music change the world?

DiFranco was characteristically thoughtful. “It can inspire, motivate, affirm people. It seems that people hold music so close to their hearts that it’s almost the most powerful art in that way, for changing the world. Of course that question comes up all the time. I’m always a bit thrown by the idea of “changing the world”… it can be a debilitating expectation.

“The truth is that you can’t make some sweeping or immediate gesture and see the vast and expansive transformation that you so desire. So therefore you don’t bother — it’s just too overwhelming, it’s too intimidating, it’s too hard. The truth of changing the world is that you change a tiny thing very close to you today. And then you do it tomorrow. And the day after, and the day after. It’s a lifetime of changing yourself and changing somebody very close to you. I think that, it seems as though especially in this country, where we sort of have this expectation for immediate and huge gratification. I think the idea that political change comes over the course of a lifetime, maybe in imperceptible increments, is a deterrent to a lot of people who have the will or the vision. People who are awake, people who are socially concerned, but we’re fed this idea that we must change the world. And then we come quickly to the concept that we can’t. How could we? So we think, ‘Well, I’ll just leave that to her.’

“When I think of music changing the world, I think of writing a song and then feeling better afterwards, because I’ve given voice to something that was locked in me. Or I think of playing a tune and looking out and seeing some young thing, some pubescent girl, with tears in [her] eyes, feeling empowered and maybe a little bit closer to herself. There it is. That’s my big work.” She laughed. “It’s gloriously microscopic by nature. And so in that sense, I just believe anything, any of us, all of us can change the world. And in fact we are. And the world is just gonna change. So really, it’s not even ‘Can we change the world?’ but ‘Can we direct the change?’

“We were just in D.C. last week, lobbying. We went to Capitol Hill and lobbied against the energy bill, which was just billions and billions invested back into nuclear power. Building more nuclear power plants, the ones that exist are at waste capacity anyway, so there’s already this crisis of what to do with nuclear waste. The answer, according to the government: to ship it all out to the Goshute Indian reservation in Utah. We’re fighting that dump. Exhausting work — most of which was done by Susan Alzner [DiFranco’s road manager], who organized the whole lobbying effort. Just a grueling effort by a lot of folks. The Indigo Girls were there, Winona LaDuke was there, we had an actor, James [Cromwell] — quite a collection of people, spirits, that came in and went senator office to senator office, just trying to speak human to human, bring some truth into this insane environment of politicking and wheeling and dealing. And then the energy bill got passed.”

A failure? It’s not that simple: “Once again, it’s like — it was such hard work that I want to do it more! It pushed that challenge button in me. I, like anybody, just feel completely defeated, often, by one horrific event after another.

“Before that last election, the shows felt like rallies. People were so invigorated. There was a momentum there. And then the election happened, and it’s like the air just blew out of everybody’s sails. I’ve been onstage playing a lot of really political material, and I just feel almost like I’m poking the collective bruise. I feel like we sort of have this collective heartbreak. And I feel it, too, but for me it’s a conscious process of don’t give energy to that heartbreak. Just stay focused on those tiny, incremental, positive changes that you can effect. Like, I really felt like all of the [senators’] aides we talked to — we didn’t talk to a single senator, we talked to aides. All senators, men; all top aides, women, by the way, a very fascinating dynamic — the apologists for the men. But they all felt like good people. And I could feel them all hearing and agreeing to whatever extent. That is what I want to focus on.

“And I guess that’s sort of a metaphor for how I lead my life. Focus on the good people, doing the good work, and the points of possibility, and don’t give energy to the hopelessness.”