Roots Report: Music Beyond The Towers

Okee dokee folks … So, will we have an actual spring this year or will we get snow in April? Either way is fine with me, I bought snowshoes!

I don’t mind the snow, but this was a tough winter. And it could snow in May — it’s happened before. On my 16th birthday we had a snow day because of 6 inches of snow. Weather is a wild thing. You may be able to predict it, but you can’t control it. People just have to better learn to adapt. For example, I like to hike. There was too much snow this winter to do that, so I bought snowshoes. I adapted. Other places get much, much more snow than us, but they go about their lives just fine.  They adapt. Unless you plan on hibernating over the winter, you will have to adapt if you want to enjoy life during the colder months. Last winter friends of mine actually performed their music outside in a snowstorm. Learn to deal with the cold; learn to drive in the snow. Doing donuts in my truck in empty parking lots helps me overcome the fear of driving in the snow. If people had adapted to the weather, we would have had far fewer show cancellations this winter. There is still a chance for snow in the coming months, so if it snows again don’t freak out. Be brave, but be safe. Enough for now, read on …

The Courthouse Center for the Arts (CCA) in West Kingston is kicking things up a notch and Coming Alive! The iconic courthouse building has gone through many incarnations as an arts complex. Currently Loraine Craig Lesniak is leading the charge to get the venue onto the radar of folks in South County and beyond. She stacked the calendar with classic artists such as Melanie, Jonathan Edwards, Pousette-Dart, Livingston Taylor, John Ford Coley, and Pure Prairie League. The Courthouse Center houses an intimate theater, which is a wonderful space to enjoy great performances. The CCA is easy to get to, has ample on-site parking and is a very friendly place.

Back in the hey-day of the folk boom, the area around URI was lush with music presented in venues such as The Post and Beam Coffeehouse and The First Fridays Coffeehouse. The folk boom ended and so did the venues, leaving a gaping hole. Slowly the area’s music void is being filled by places such as The CCA and Music at Lily Pads in Peacedale. It’s about time that these venues get on your music radar. Good things do happen south of the Tower on Route 1 and this is RI, so nothing is really too far away.

Coming up in the next couple of weeks at the CCA you can hear the music of Melanie and The Pousette-Dart Band. Melanie became the voice of an era in one magical instant onstage at Woodstock. On that night, a New York kid barely known outside of the coffeehouse circuit in Greenwich Village sang her song “Beautiful People” and inspired the first panorama of candles and cigarette lighters ever raised at a concert event. That, in turn, moved the young singer to write “Lay Down (Candles in the Rain,”) which sold more than one million copies in 1970 and prompted Billboard, Cashbox, Melody Maker, Record World, and Bravo to name her as female vocalist of the year. Her single “Brand New Key,” an infectious romp about freedom and roller skates, topped the charts in 1971. With guitar in hand and a talent that combined amazing vocal equipment, disarming humor and a vibrant engagement with life, she was booked as the first solo pop/rock artist ever to appear from the Royal Albert Hall to Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Opera House, and later opened the New Metropolitan Opera House in New York, the Sydney Opera House, and in the General Assembly of the United Nations, where she was invited to perform on many occasions as delegates greeted her performances with standing ovations. The top television hosts of all time — Ed Sullivan, Johnny Carson, and Dick Cavett — all battled to book her. In the years that followed, Melanie continued to record and tour. UNICEF made her its spokesperson. Her records continued to sell — more than eighty million to date. She’s had her songs covered by singers as diverse as Cher, Dolly Parton and Macy Gray. She’s raised a family, won an Emmy, opened a restaurant and written a musical about Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane. Melanie will sing at the CCA on March 21.

On March 27 at the CCA, The Pousette-Dart Band takes the Courthouse stage. The Pousette-Dart Band, led by Jon Pousette-Dart were a mainstay of album radio, a favorite on the college circuit, and became one of the busiest touring groups in the US working with such acts as The Byrds, Bonnie Raitt, Little Feat, The Eagles, James Taylor, The J. Geils Band and many more, including the now famous Frampton Comes Alive tour. While the original group dis-banded in the early 80s, Jon kept performing with original drummer Eric Parker and continued writing and producing into the 90s, when he returned to Nashville to begin recording again on his own. He turned out four more solo albums, including Anti-Gravity, a cohesive selection of his best songs to date. He has co-written with some of the finest writers in the country. In November 2014 Jon Pousette-Dart released his latest, Talk. For more about this and the Melanie show, County Line over to CourthouseArts.org

Also in the South County area is Music at Lily Pads, which is located in Peace Dale at the Lily Pads Professional Center. They have been presenting top notch performances since 2009. The space is in the sanctuary of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of South County, seats 170 and offers a comfortable and intimate place to hear live music. Lily Pads hosts local, regional and national talent, ranging from new and traditional folk, jazz and rock acts, to choral groups and classical ensembles, poetry events, and dances. Coming up at Lily Pads on March 28 is singer-songwriter Ellis Paul. Though some may refer to him as a folksinger, he is more. He is a storyteller. He first gained prominence in Boston coffeehouses and open mic nights. It also helped him that he won a Boston Underground Songwriting competition and placement on a Windham Hill Records singer/songwriter compilation, bringing him his first hint of national exposure. Paul became infatuated with the music of Woody Guthrie, drawn to Woody’s social consciousness and the humanitarian streak that ran through his work. His commitment to Guthrie’s legacy eventually led to his inclusion in a 10-day celebration of Woody’s work held at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in September 1996, an event that included such notables as Bruce Springsteen, Billy Bragg, the Indigo Girls and Ani DiFranco and which was presided over by Guthrie’s daughter Nora. He’s performed at the Newport Folk Festival, played Carnegie Hall, and venues from Alaska to Miami, Paris and London. In addition to his 19 albums released on the Rounder and Black Wolf record labels, his music has appeared on dozens of compilations. Paul has also contributed songs to commercials, documentaries, TV shows and the soundtracks of several blockbuster films, among them three by the Farrelly Brothers.

Last week I finally had a chance to see the legendary Neil Diamond perform. Diamond performed to a near capacity crowd at the Dunkin Donuts Center.  While I was walking to my seat I overheard someone say “You won’t smell any marijuana here you’ll just smell Ben Gay!” Yes, the 74-year-old singer’s legion of fans tends to be on the older end of the age spectrum but it doesn’t make them any less loyal or excitable. About twenty minutes after the scheduled 8pm start time the stage separated and Diamond strolled out while his 13-piece band played a long intro to I’m a Believer, the song he wrote for the Monkees. Behind the stage a large 3-D looking diamond turned on the diamond shaped screen. Diamond seemed to be going for the younger, hipster look as he was sporting skinny jeans and a beard.  He sang the first half dozen songs of the night sans guitar. His singing was always accented by his signature arm and hand gestures and the occasional “huh!” and “yeah!” He eventually strapped his Gibson J-200 guitar on for Kentucky Woman. He set his guitar back on the stand and said. “I love to sing and play my new guitar but most of all I love to dance.” And with that he launched into the reggae of Red, Red, Wine. “I’m going to play a love song I wrote about forty years ago. I will try to remember it. I’ll play you the parts I remember’, introduced his song “Play Me.” And as the guitar solo kicked in he mentioned, “This is the part I don’t remember.”  The fourteenth song, “Cherry, Cherry”, was stretched out by the introduction of every band member and an instrument solo by each. The sister back up singers, Julia and Maxine, did their best Salt-N-Pepa rap to the song. He added a couple of new songs to the night’s mix but then went back into the hits. One song had the lyrics floating across the backdrop diamond screen. For the tune “Holly, Holy” he picked up a black Martin guitar that had the words “Neil Diamond” emblazoned across the fretboard. He closed the twenty-song set with “I am I Said”. After a generous round of applause, Diamond once again took the stage and presented some of his biggest hits including  “Cracklin’ Rosie”, Coming To America” and “Sweet Caroline” which was actually performed twice -once with Neil singing and then again as more of an audience sing-a-long with lots of “so goods” and “ba-ba-ba’s”. This was encouraged when Diamond said, “I am coming to the chorus and I need to hear everyone singing!” He finished up playing his own hits with “Brother Love’s Traveling Salvation Show.” The last number in the five-song encore was from the Hollies’ -“He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother.” The stage then separated and Diamond left the stage. Across the big diamond screen was written, “Thank You, Providence, Love, Neil.” Having never seen Diamond perform live the only thing I had to go on was concert footage I had watched on TV. My mother, who was my “date” for the evening (no comments- I am not ashamed to take mom out for a night of music!), thoroughly enjoyed the show and thought he was as good as ever. She had seen him quite a few years ago when he was in PVD. As much as I enjoyed the show the whole time I thought that Diamond looked old and tired. Yes, he is 74-years-old but so is Ringo Starr and Starr did jumping jacks at the end of his show. I wasn’t expecting Neil to do aerobics on stage but again he just seemed tired. He did play a two-hour show packed with just about everything you would want to hear. You could clearly see his face on the jumbo screens located on either side of the stage. There was something about his eyes that just didn’t have the life I had seen in the earlier concert footage. I am glad that I was able to see him perform live but wish I had done it much sooner.

That’s it for now. If you have Roots related music events that you would like shared, please send me the information and I will consider it for my column. The more I know the more that everyone else will know. Thanks! www.JohnFuzek.com

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