The Music Never Stops: The Grateful Dead’s 100 Essential Songs is Deadhead essential reading

Artboard 6“What was I thinking?” The first words out of my mouth after offering to review this hot-off-the-press book –The Grateful Dead’s 100 Essential Songs: The Music Never Stops. With limited knowledge and listening experience of the band to ride on (there are only two Dead songs I know – “Truckin” and “Friend of the Devil”), I delved into “The Black Muddy River.”

Co-author Barry Barnes, who taped more than 200 Dead shows since his first in Des Moines, Iowa, on June 16, 1974, admits that being a Deadhead has been “a long strange trip.” As a child, he tried his hand at music instruction (piano and trumpet), but claims to be more of a “passionate listener.” Early appreciation of the Dead started in the ’70s when he was a DJ on an FM rock station in Kansas City and owner of a record store. As his love of the Dead grew deeper, he learned that not only was this dance band improvisational with their music, but also in their approach to music-as-business. This observation led him to quit his jobs, go back to school, earn a PhD in business and study the band’s incredibly successful business strategy. His passion for business theory and the Dead led him to write the book – Everything I Know about Business I Learned from the Dead: The Ten Most Innovative Lessons from a Long Strange Trip (2001).

 Co-author Bob Trudeau grew up in a household full of music. After trying his hand at piano early on, he too proclaims to be more of a listener. He followed the early careers of Buffy Sainte-Marie and Taj Mahal until 1971 when, as he says, “The Dead made a sudden and powerful leap into my life.” He was hooked immediately. After college, and a Peace Corp tour in Honduras with wife, Pat, Trudeau went on to earn his PhD in political science, and in 1970 started a long-tenured career as a professor at Providence College. His love of the Dead never waned, and his interest in the Dead’s bass player, Phil Lesh, led Trudeau to learn to play bass. He even sat in occasionally with a Dead band when he lived in Athens, Georgia. He continued to explore the phenomena of the Dead, but it wasn’t until 12 years after their last performance, and his attendance at an Unbroken Chain Conference in 2007, that his serious study and scholarly analysis of the Dead began.

Both authors agree they might not know as much as others who have studied the Dead, yet they felt compelled to share their experiences with lifelong fans and curious newbies. Their hope is that their contribution will help folks gain a deeper understanding of the music and its place in history.

The authors chose their “100 personal best” – songs they feel capture the band’s 30-year, cross-musical genre journey. The book is full of stats and figures – it has been said that there is more statistical information about the Dead than anything else in the world except baseball. Dedicated Deadheads who are into concert statistics and have complete knowledge of the band’s history and players will thoroughly enjoy reading cover to cover – from “Alabama Getaway” to “The Wheel.” Yet, this book is designed as a go-at-your-own-pace interactive guide – great for the seasoned Deadhead and newbies alike.

Ed Sweeney & Friends Passing Through

ed1Years ago I met Ed Sweeney at a Rhode Island Songwriters Association event. He handed me his CD, Inside Fezziwigs’. Many years later, that CD has become a holiday favorite. And much like Dickens’ Fezziwig character, Ed has a generous way – smiling, gracious and happy to chat and catch up when you see him.

Ed has spent his entire career studying people and the history behind their music. He is a fabulous steel string finger-style player and Passing Through is a fine collection highlighting 35 years of work – practice, learning, playing, traveling abroad and teaching. He has studied with and performed alongside many top professionals in the field of traditional music, and his work has appeared in Not for Ourselves Alone: The Story of Elizabeth Cady Stanton & Susan B. Anthony, a documentary by Ken Burns. Most recently he performed in Taiwan alongside Pipa master Yang Wei.

Much like the man, the music he chooses to record is friendly and warm-hearted. Passing Through, a 25-tune instrumental collection of traditional music, features some of Ed’s finest picking – five-string and fretless banjo and six and 12-string guitars.

Ed’s banjo and guitar playing lead you to the heart of a young gal waiting for her true love to return from the Revolution in “Johnny Has Gone for a Soldier.” In “The Battle Cry of Freedom” you’ll hear soldiers rooting for the Union cause. “Free America,” a grand Revolutionary War number featuring Sally McNight, hammer dulcimer; Jeff Davis, fiddle and mandolin; and Mark Roberts, Irish wood flute; will muster up the patriot in you.

ed2This collection is rooted in tradition, yet you will never feel you have to know the history behind each tune to enjoy the music. Delicately crafted arrangements invite the listener to create their own storyline. You may experience moments of joy listening to the Welsh hymn “Hyfrydol” (accompanied by Sally McKnight on hammer dulcimer and Catherine Hawkes playing recorder) or moments of sadness in his solo guitar rendition of “Talk About Suffering.” A background chorus and a solemnly played guitar on “When Jesus Wept” deliver a memorable rendition of the patriotic Revolutionary War composition written in the 1700s by William Billings.

On “My Old Kentucky Home,” Ed has invited home an old Rhode Island favorite, Stephen Snyder, to join him on piano; add in a violin solo by Karl Dennis and you’ll pine away and yearn for the comforts of home and those you love and miss. Another Rhode Island favorite, Dan Moretti sneaks in a breathy clarinet part on “Blue Bell.” Joining Ed on guitar and Karl on violin, Mance Grady strikes the bones on the American fiddle tune “West Fork Girls” – a tune sure to move you to dance.

The banjo can be a true audial assault if not tuned or played properly. Ed will transform your thinking about this traditional American instrument. “The Glendy Burke” and the “Mole in the Ground” are fine examples of his skill on fretless banjo. He plays clawhammer (or frailing) style banjo. Frailing  and fretless banjo are two uniquely traditional American instruments and Ed has studied and mastered both.

Many of the songs Ed chose to record exemplify the place he has carved for himself in American folk tradition. His website notes his “music entertains as well as educates. He uses his musical expertise, breadth of knowledge and wonderful sense of humor to help listeners come to understand the motivations, stories and culture that have made us what we are today.” If you had just one song to purchase from this collection, this reviewer would select the first cut, “A Land of Rest.”

Learn more about Ed and the complete listing of  friends on this recording at edsweeneymusic.com

Mark Erelli’s Milltowns: A Tribute to Bill Morrissey at Stone Soup Coffeehouse

Years ago, I narrowly met Mark Erelli. We were two of three finalists in a songwriting competition. I say narrowly as we were both backstage, pre-performance, practicing – no time to talk.

I do not remember the winner’s name, but I do remember Mark Erelli. I remember Mark Erelli because Mark Erelli works very, very hard – music is his job. He has a remarkable stick-to-itiveness, and an I-won’t-give-up attitude about his position in the music scene.

Mark has completely woven his god-given gifts into the fabric of the acoustic performing songwriter community: songwriter, performer, recording artist, noted side-man and producer. Now, years later, he is hitting his biggest stride.

He has recorded too many CDs to count and if his past recordings have been overlooked or forgotten, his most recent, Milltown, will certainly float him to the top of the charts and encourage listeners, old and new, to review his full catalog.

Milltowns is Erelli’s tribute to the late Bill Morrissey, a performing songwriter whom he admires and respects so much it warranted putting his own writing aside to delve into recording this collection.

Men have difficulty expressing themselves – Bill was no different. Quiet with a hard finish and emotionally sensitive core, Bill’s lyrics are the voice of every man. Erelli’s selections for Milltown cover such emotions and more.

The CD opens with classic Morrisey – “Birches.” “Birches” takes a heart-warming look at a couple in the winter of their years. Harboring emotion that extends far beyond its 3-minute song frame, Mark’s rendition is every bit as passionate as Morrisey’s.

Erelli’s cover of ”Letter from Heaven” truly captures Morrissey’s keen sense of humor. This cut is so good it has you wondering if Mark received a bit of Bill’s coaching from on high.

“Long Gone” sings of a traveling man, fueled by thoughts of home and his love still waiting. This song is very nicely produced with Anais Mitchell’s rich backing vocal and Charlie Rose’s rambling banjo and pedal steel parts. Charlie will also be the supporting act for this performance.

An album of this type can be a hit or a miss – a cheesy shot at trying to sound like the real deal. There is absolutely none of that here. Erelli captures a few of the cracks and crackles in Bill’s voice, a raspy affectation here or there, yet never overdone. This might best be noted in “She’s that Kind of Mystery,” which is nicely arranged with Rose Polenzani’s delicate backing harmony.

If you were to buy one cut from this selection, this author’s pick would be “Handsome Molly.” It just embodies all that Erelli is trying to achieve with this tribute. There are also beautiful backing vocals by Kris Delmhorst.

The final cut, “Milltowns,” was written by Erelli. It opens with a personal retelling of a night Mark spent drinking and playing songs with Bill, moving on to share reflections of a performing songwriter as he passes from town to town.

Bill Morrissey has a long history with Stone Soup Coffeehouse; he was a returning favorite of the late Richard Walton. When they found Bill in his hotel room, the police dialed the last number he had dialed, hoping it might be a family member, and instead reached Stone Soup. Bill had called that evening to confirm his next booking.

Morrissey was a songwriter’s songwriter; his legacy will be carried on by those who follow in his footsteps. Milltown may just be the result of Bill’s passing along of a musical torch to Mark Erelli.

Come listen to Mark Erelli  (and maybe Bill) at Stone Soup on Saturday, Dec 6 at 7pm.

CD Review: Bob Kendall’s Self-Titled Album

f03BKdigi.inddIt was hard for me to listen to the new Bob Kendall CD without hearing everyone but Bob Kendall. The production is a little bit all over the place and there are some tricks and licks I know were not intentionally copped from other people’s work.

Initially I could not break from hearing Beatles-esque production throughout. Especially on “Dazed” and “Stay” with vocal screams similar to those on “Revolution.” Then there was “Long Roads” with an opening reminiscent of Bonnie Raitt’s cut of “Nobody’s Girl.”

But then I just had to stop myself from going down that road with this body of work. Clearly this guy knows how to throw together lyrics and melody and make some great original music that stays with you.

With “Stay” he has a new twist on the near-break-up song with lines like, “You’re never going to have to compromise if you don’t stay.” “Long Road” has lots of nice long guitar runs, and touches upon the expansiveness of life itself and how sometimes just coming home is a comfortable way to deal with it all.

On “New Day,” Bob has a vocal quiver that reminds me a bit of John Hiatt. It works for this number. “New Day” is a bit of a plea for a friend, or lover, to not give up and roll that bad stretch of luck into a hopeful new day.

“WAISTD” runs a bit too long with a lost soul trying to get a grip on reality. But the pain and confusing stretch of this number that’s over 5 minutes long could be clearly intentional, intensifying this songwriter’s night ride.

If buying just one single from this collection, this writer would choose “Rage.” It is the most heartfelt, enduring relationship tune I have heard in a while. It has a nice production with neatly dropped cymbal crashes and soft keys to building waves of emotional tension. “Into the ocean, if all my rage slipped into the wrong hands, into the wrong hands, would we lose our way.”

The holidays can be painful, but there is nothing worse than grinning and bearing one’s painful way through them. “Holiday” reminds us that being with that special someone, even if things aren’t going well, might just be the only gift we need until the thaw.

I’m not sure what is really going on in “Pall Mall Days,” but I like the tune and maybe you and I really do not need to know and should just listen to this one.

The most acoustic tune on the album is “You Can’t Have Everything.” If this is what he sounds like solo acoustic, I think we should all seek him out and give a listen. It is his voice, rather raw and up front, that opens this careful-what-you-wish-for number, “You can’t have everything, cause you just want more, careful what you’re asking for, cause it might be yours.”

The collection ends with what appears to be a ghost track – “Wind.” A plane flying overhead, a church organ and tenor vocalist singing a la Sunday service style. Curious for sure.

I think Bob Kendall’s work is well worth its place in one’s collection. If you are not convinced by this reviewer’s take, give a listen to him yourself on November 22 at the Commonfence Point in Little Compton. Learn more about Bob by visiting bobkendall.com

Songmill: Jesse Liam’s This Is Where I Am

jesseliam22Sometimes the fun in receiving new releases is hearing the continued growth and maturity of an artist. With each recording, and with each new song, Jesse Liam is no exception. Jesse has morphed from just a kid who likes to sing into a fast-maturing vocalist and performer. His new release, a 5-song collection titled This Is Where I Am, is a recorded continuum of what Jesse does best — entertain.

In previous recordings Jesse has been forthright about selecting tunes from catalogs of local writers and this production is no different. This time, however, he was more involved in the writing process and cowrote two of the songs with regional songwriters.

The EP opens with “It’s Alright,” a tune cowritten with Greg Lato. Greg Lato’s catalog has a fair share of average-looking, hard-working-guy, in dead-end-job songs. It’s hard not to appreciate the spirit behind Greg’s tunes – most men can relate to his universal message. Now take his pop sensibilities and Jesse’s vocal gusto, toss a guy-loves-great-girl theme in the mix, and you have a pretty upbeat take on the upside of being a hard-working man.

The lyric lines in “This Is Where I Am,” cowritten with Todd Thibaud, might capture a little bit more of Jesse’s personal side. It’s a shy-guy meets confident-girl in a dance hall number. It rings a bit true as when not on stage, Jesse can be found at the Mishnock Barn in East Greenwich hanging out by the lake and kickin’ up his cowboy heels on the dance floor. This tune about a young guy who wants a bit more than the promise of a dance is nicely arranged with Mike “The Monster” Welch playing some beefy guitar solos over Jack Gauthier’s sweet and steady mandolin rhythms. If you download one cut from this collection, this one would be this reviewer’s pick.

Three of the tunes on This is Where I Am are covers. “Quitters Never Lose,” written by young blues roots man Andy Poxon, is a fitting selection for this CD. Jesse delivers this pop melody’s theme – a young man trying to convince a friend that the girl he is dating is the wrong choice. I am sure some might find his cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire” refreshing, but this listener is not convinced. Being a Boss fan, it’s hard to hear this sing-songy uptempo rendition. It is nicely arranged and smartly performed with Paul Dube on accordion, Matt Dube playing keys, and Dave Tegelaar on dobro slide guitar. Vocally, however, it lacks the passion of the original. However, Jesse’s cover of Michael Bublé’s “Home,” is incredibly beautiful. It suits Jesse’s voice and clearly evokes the emotion the writer intended.

Jesse Liam and Jack Gauthier have put together another solid studio recording with Dan Hann laying down thoughtful rhythm tracks and Duke Robillard appearing on a cut or two. Jesse easily converts that energy from studio to stage and his performances are just as spot-on as his recordings. The result of much hard work and practice.

He loves performing and is not happy unless you leave one of his shows just as happy. So I strongly suggest that you put your smile on and go see him live while the sun is shining. This month he will be performing with his band at the Saltwater Anglers Association’s Galilee Fishing & Seafood Festival on Saturday, September 6, 4:30pm at the Port of Galilee or Wednesday, September 10, at the Bellingham Shopping from 5 to 7pm. Learn more at jesseliam.com

The Songmill: Mary Ellen Casey’s Ordinary Day

songmillLittle Rhody is a tiny state, but I am willing to bet we have more songwriters per capita than any other. Afloat this summer in our vast pool of dedicated and talented singer songwriters is Mary Ellen Casey.

Mary Ellen is not new to songwriting. She has been writing and performing for years. Like many local songwriters trying to support themselves or supplement their income, she performs a hearty mix of her own compositions along with well-known songs by nationally known artists. Her latest and second commercially released CD of original music, Ordinary Day, showcases how beautiful and pleasant her original music really is.

Similar to the rich vocal styling of Anne Murray, Mary Ellen’s strong, yet smooth voice is perfectly suited for, and carries well, the songs she has selected for this CD.

On first listen, the songs appear to be light with very pop memorable and melodic refrains. Digging in deeper, though, you will hear much more. Between the soft lines of her lilting voice lies an undercurrent of deeper meaning – a soul searching for itself.

The album, dedicated to her soul mate, leads with an up-tempo number “The Love of Her Life” – a quest for someone looking for, and finding, that special someone. Several cuts in this collection laud those who have stayed together through the thick and the thin of it all and come out shining. Probably the finest song on the album is, “You Love Me Anyway” – a passionate and honest reflection on the strengths, weaknesses and differences that hold a couple near and dear. If you buy just one single from this collection, “You Love Me Anyway” would be this reviewer’s pick.

Just when you think the CD only shines a light on love, Mary Ellen’s out celebrating with her mates on “Paddy O’Hara,” a sprightly number that has the listener leaving their troubles behind as they step through the doors of their local pub. ”Paddy O’Hara” celebrates the Irish in us all as we tip a pint or two and toast good friends.

Recorded at Lakewest Recording and produced by Jack Gauthier, the album is a strong, comfortable listen with Duke Robillard backing Mary Ellen on lead guitar and Mark Teixeira moving things along with some tasty rhythms.

The album, all in all, is a salute to the hard working gal/guy. On “Ordinary Day,” you are encouraged to call in a “well-day” from work and simply enjoy a walk about your own town. The title cut, “I Would Love You Despite Of,” takes another look at that couple who despite working hard, carrying a multitude of family responsibilities and the weight of the world on their shoulders, push through and endure. “This Lady” is a tad sad, yet a reminder of how we all feel at times, as we struggle to juggle what life throws at us while trying to find peace, acceptance and a higher purpose in life.

“Bathroom Trash Blues” is a cute tribute to her pup’s trash-pickin’, incurable blunders. The final cut, “New England Town,” captures what it means to be home – a songwriter’s blessing for all she values.  It is a beautiful closing number acknowledging those who have come before us and the gifts we’ve been given.

Make a songwriter happy this week by buying a CD, downloading a tune or two, or shutting down that Facebook and going to listen to some original music – maybe even Mary Ellen Casey, on August 17, from 11am to 2pm at Java Madness in South Kingston. Learn more about Mary Ellen by visiting www.maryellencasey.com