Dash Around Town: CD Review – Halfway Home

insideJacketLocal musicians David Furlong and Joe Caron have made a stunning CD, Halfway Home, which contains 11 well-produced tunes and was recorded at the Richmond Room.  A second CD is underway.

These two accomplished local “musos” have joined forces inlaying tracks (also with cameos by Laura Furlong on other strings; John Brough on drums and tech wizardry by Paul Henry) into a finely woven tapestry of terrific sounds with lite homage of C.S.N.&Y, Dire Straits, Jackson Browne and perhaps a shadow of Django. This is an awesome musical collaboration.

After several days of listening to and scrutinizing this CD, I concluded that these two accomplished local “musos” have taken a step above all the mediocre studio blend-o-matic spam being produced today, locally or otherwise.  This album beckons to be listened to and enjoyed. In the Brave New World of fast-moving technologies that put too many monkeys at the wheel, this album is a refreshing course in how much talent you need to make something of quality, no matter how long you have been around.

With a second album in the works and with Joe Caron busy with some solo recording, I expect we will be hearing more from these guys. It’s already being aired on some Boston radio stations. Let’s hope to witness the same courtesy from our local people in airing Halfway Home.



Album Review: Roomful of Blues – “45 LIVE”


Local Rhode Island band live: 45 years later

Sitting down to review a new Roomful of Blues release is a little like trying to critique the air. Overstatement?  Perhaps, but consider this: for over 45 years, no one entity has come close to not merely representing, but rather defining the very fabric of what the New England music scene is, better than that ubiquitous mob of swingers called Roomful of Blues. And just as The Beatles hailed from Liverpool only to go glacial,  Roomful sprang from little Rhody and in short order created a fanbase from East Coast U.S.A. to West, Europe to Asia, and everywhere people enjoy a heavy jump beat with luscious brass punctuating the whole swingin’ stew.

The Grammy award winning band started in 1967, under the guidance of guitar-giant Duke Robillard and pianist Al Copley. Through the ensuing decades, Roomful of Blues served almost as a musical refinery plant where more often than not, musicians came in great and left legends. Names like Ronnie Earl, Lou Ann Barton, Porky Cohen, Ron Levy, Dave Howard, Curtis Salgato, and of course, the aforementioned Robillard all emerged from Roomful’s lineup elevated to cult status among those lovers of the genre.

However, it’s with their terribly-potent current lineup that Roomful releases 45 LIVE on Alligator Records. Spanning their entire five-decade career, the album contains 65 minutes of what made this swing-blues juggernaut a household name. Led by guitarist Chris Vachon, the eight-piece Roomful of Blues, featuring original member Rich Lataille and new singer Phil Pemberton, made great inroads toward capturing that ever-allusive “live club vibe” on this, their 23rd disc.

Recorded over a three-day engagement at Matunuck’s Ocean Mist (Rhode Island’s answer to The Stone Pony),  45 LIVE wastes little time getting into that unmistakable Roomful of Blues joint with the heavy swinging “Just Keep On Rockin.” In a voice reminiscent of Kim Wilson (though never derivative), Phil Pemberton bolts out vocals in confident bursts of soul “My baby loves to travel with the band. She travels with us all across the land –  Every roadhouse and every state there’s a line out the gate…

Those passionate about the genre know it’s a  melange of various American roots influences, ranging from Texas swing to Chicago blues, right down to New Orleans’ Cajun sounds. And it’s with the latter that Roomful adds their own touch to the Hank Williams standard “Jambalaya (On The Bayou).” And in demonstrating just how diverse those influences are, the band effortlessly transitions into Magic Sam’s slow, driving blues number, “Easy Baby.” Throughout, Chris Vachon steps out from all that brassy goodness, guitar in hand, and treats those within earshot to some painfully eloquent licks, dripping with much tone and taste.

But as with any great band, it’s always that one certain original crowd-pleaser that becomes synonymous with the band itself.  And for Roomful of Blues “Dressed Up To Get Messed Up” is that number. Omission of this perennial favorite from any Roomful retrospective, either live or studio, would be tantamount to criminal.

The music business has always been a risky, unpredictable proposition. And Roomful of Blues has not only thrived through decades of coming-and-going trends and styles, they’ve actually transcended from a band into an institution.  Undoubtedly, in the ensuing years, membership in Roomful’s lineup will change, but their position as the very best jump-blues, swing rock & roots act will easily remain undisputed for many decades to come. 45 LIVE outlines precisely why that is.

Sample New Tunes from The Quahogs

The-QuahogsA quahog is an edible, hard-shelled marine bivalve mollusk (aka, a clam), which is native to the eastern shores of North America, from Prince Edward Island to the Yucatán Peninsula. The Quahogs are something completely different, barring the fact that they too hail from the Eastern shores of North America … well, Providence, but you get the idea. Far from being something you’d wanna deep-fry, the band known as The Quahogs combine the best elements of folk, rock and country into a gut-wrenching, raw, rootsy blend, which throughout retains a relevant, youthful sound.

The band is the brainchild of Quahog songwriter and singer-guitarist Steve Delmonico, who in 2011 began recruiting like-minded musicians to flesh out a backlog of his song ideas. The final lineup of Kevin Aubin on drums, Chaz Weber and Jim Galvin on lead guitars, and Ethan Kerrigan on bass pooled their collective talents into a forthcoming project titled Traveler’s Log. Though that CD is due out any time, The Quahogs decided to release a prelude EP of new material called Spasms, which is free to download on their various social media sites.

The EP comes at a precarious time for the band, especially for Steve Delmonico, who has been laid up and out of service for several months battling a severe case of pancreatitis, brought on by, as he puts it, “binge drinking like an idiot.” And it’s that kind of honesty that underscores his entire style of songwriting, in that he demonstrates a fearlessness to feel his own pain and transcribe it to song. In fact, most of the songs on the new E.P. reflect a sense of frustration and isolation he clearly must have felt during this dark period, which included stints in both the hospital and rehab.

In the time-honored tradition of greats like Bob Dylan, Townes Van Zandt, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain and other songwriters that he and his fellow Quahogs admire, Delmonico writes from a place of courage and veracity. After all, good songwriters give the public what they want. Great songwriters tell them what they need to hear. On the track “Midnight Train,” Delmonico minces few words in detailing a sense of loss and lament in the wake of damage done: “I’m drunk again with you on my mind / It’s happened once before, it’s happened every time / All I wanna do is drown the pain, and forget the day you took the midnight train / Fuck the midnight train, she shot me low / My baby left me about a year ago…

Another standout track is “Grand Central,” which at first blush sounds like an updated version of something The Byrds would have done on their 1968 foray into country music, Sweetheart of the Rodeo. But make no mistake, their work is not derivative, it’s inspired: “Went to Saratoga Springs, right back down to Queens to forget what I left behind me / Well it ain’t so bad, I got a flask and a brand new pack, and I’m thinking baby just maybe someday someone will save me.”

As is often the case, lack of space permits me to expound on just how impressed I am with The Quahogs. And considering how long-winded I can be, maybe that’s for the best. But I can declare without any hesitation that these few tracks represent a sound and songwriting style that rank The Quahogs among the best original bands to come out of the area in some time. Most artists spend many months and even years looking for their own unique voice. But in this case, it seems like the voice and sound came looking for a band. And in The Quahogs, worthy caretakers were found, and hopefully they’ll carry on the tradition of unvarnished, honest songwriting and heavy roots performances for many years to come.

CD Review: Faber’s Pain Don’t Hurt

faber-bandWhile watching the 2013 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Ceremony, I heard a fascinating quote during a videotaped package played before Randy Newman’s induction. In it, the notoriously acerbic singer-songwriter bemoans the fact that rock music takes itself far too seriously. And now here I am a week later listening to Rhode Island rock band Faber’s new CD, Pain Don’t Hurt, and I’m thinking to myself, “No one is ever gonna accuse these guys of that!” Any band whose biography accounts how “[Faber’s] display of alternative rock riffs and references to 80s movies pleases their four loyal members of the Faber Army …” clearly has their collective tongue planted firmly in cheek.

If you’re not familiar with the musical juggernaut that is Faber, they can best be described as a cross between Green Day, The Vapors, and Zamfir: Master of the Pan Flute (ok, not so much the latter, but I thought the boys would appreciate the reference). Their quirky brand of three chord rock won’t be causing Emerson, Lake and Palmer to lose any sleep tonight. But that said, there is something extremely satisfying about their unabashed lack of pretense. And that’s not a bad thing at all!

Faber consists of Dave Calkins (lead singer and guitarist), Sean DeLong (bass), Matt King (another guitarist) and Artie Tefft (drums). A quick glance at their promotional photos tells me these guys are anything but wide-eyed kids attempting their first stab at big time rock & roll. They’ve clearly been around the block and unless I’ve completely misinterpreted their music, they know exactly what they’re doing and are having a blast doing it! Hell, one of them is wearing leather chaps for f@#ksakes! The prosecution rests, Your Honor….

Pain Don’t Hurt consists of 12 catchy tunes whose genius lies not in the often-adequate instrumentation, but rather in the lyrics. One such example is “Some Strange,” a three-minute litany of every bad pick-up line known to man. Although I’m inclined to just reprint the entire set of lyrics, here’s a select few. “Do you have a Band-Aid? I scraped my knee falling for you. / I am not a genie, but I can make your dreams come true. / Was that just an earthquake, or did you just rock my world?  / Do you know CPR, because you take my breath away?” Fair warning ladies, I’ll be using a few of those lines myself this weekend.

“Let Me Know” is a perfect example of Faber’s minimalistic, yet extremely effective, approach to songwriting. Three chords – CHECK! Repetitive refrain of “Let me know, let me know, let me know how you feel” – CHECK! A classic mid-70s-style Who ending that could be mistaken for a train set falling down a flight of stairs – CHECK! It’s only rock & roll, but I do like it.

Clearly these guys are not a studio act by any stretch. Faber’s music is quintessential live fodder, meant to be absorbed through a heaving cloud of humidity, sweat and sound that only a bilgy club venue can provide. Granted, some of the material falls under the “It’s so bad, it’s good!” banner, but by and large, Faber is exactly what much of the alternative audiences today crave – three chords and three minutes of unpretentious rock. Faber made me smile today, and that’s more than Justin Bieber has ever done for me, dammit. Who could ask for anything more?

Next Gen Theatre Explores Intimacy

All This Intimacy reminds us that connecting with other people in this day and age is easy; however, it does take more than physical contact and a few casual conversations to develop and secure real intimacy.

At first blush, All This Intimacy appears to be a Neil Simonesque comedy with several intertwined relationships. However, after the initial jokes, the play falls into a deep black hole of rampant indulgence and abandoned responsibilities. There are some very funny lines and situations, and even some great physical comedy.

Rob Roy, well-known local actor, directs this edgy, fast-paced story and cast of characters, who all are in pursuit of their own agendas, except for one. Seth, played with great comic energy by Chris Ferreira, is the only reality check for the audience.  Poor manic Seth, engaged to live-grenade Franny (Saoirse Emily Surabian) tries valiantly to keep his best friend, Ty, from self-immolation.

It is difficult to find the main protagonist, Ty (Justin Wilder), sympathetic in any way. He does have a great skill in his poetry, which allows him to bring deep feelings to others who read his work. Otherwise, Ty is completely self-absorbed. He indulges his every carnal whim on the “high” he receives from the successful release of his first book of poetry.  However, soon enough, his self-created crisis boomarangs back to haunt him. Wilder as Ty takes a rather laid-back attitude toward his character, and perhaps that is appropriate, because his character takes a laissez-faire approach to the rising crises around him.

Becca (Kaitlin Maynard), Jen (Kerry Giorgi) and Maureen (Mary Paolino) all become unknowingly enmeshed in Ty’s web of rampant self-indulgence. Each of these actresses bring a strong, distinct presence to the story. Surabian is outstanding as the trigger-hair tempered woman engaged to Seth.

There are two side elements to the play that are confusing and do not appear necessary. On the right side of the stage, a map of the world was switched back and forth from the world as we know it now to Pangia, the ancient world where all the continents were fused together. It was obviously representational, but so small that it was hard to read past the first row.

On the left side of the stage is a large white board where Ty writes the title of each scene. It opened with “Labyrinth and Hot Little Thing.” These scene titles are not representational, but rather literal and don’t add anything to the production.

Playright Rajiv Joseph is a modern young writer who loves to create stories that are provocative. He often delves fearlessly into racial situations, however, All This Intimacy explores current issues of morality. There might be a generational divide as to how this play is perceived. It is funny, but the story is also dark.

All This Intimacy plays its second weekend, May 17 and 18 at Theatre 82, at 82 Rolfe Square, Cranston, RI. For tickets, call the Artists’ Exchange at 401-490-4975. For more information, you can visit their website at www.artists-exchange.org. For more information about Next Generation Theatre, visit them on Facebook.

CD Review: Eric Barao

If you travel in certain circles of bitter musicians who nightly lose a piece of their soul toiling at dives and bars for what often amounts to little more than gas money, you’re likely to hear a few groans when the topic of Berklee trained musicians is broached. Sure, I’ll confess that I might have rolled an eye or two myself in the past. But it doesn’t come from a place of jealousy as much as it relates to a bad rap college-taught musicians have been branded with over the years. It usually goes something like, “Yeah they may know their instrument, but they don’t play with any feeling. It’s all academic; no heart – no soul – no street smarts.” And like most stereotypes, that one overgeneralizes by pointing to a small constituency of players. In fact, if one wanted to illustrate a Berklee Education put to good use, they need look no further than to the career of one such alumni, New England’s own Eric Barao. 

Barao was a co-founding member of local perennial power-pop favorites The Cautions. Back in 2006, while reviewing their then-current release, I declared them “whimsi

cal tunesmiths,” and for good reason. What I didn’t realize at the time was the source of that songwriting acumen. With his eponymous debut solo release, appropriately entitled Eric Barao, his gifted song-constructing abilities are such that they could make even the most cynical, curmudgeonly music fan sing along with delight.

The CD kicks off with the frenetically infectious “On Holiday,” a jaunty, bouncing piece of pop goodness, which will leave the listener singing the refrain long after the disc is safely back in its jewel case. Barao’s strongsuit is undoubtedly his quirky turning of a phrase, which is apparent throughout: “Eight O’clock the hotel bar’s loud, the senior sales department took control of the crowd.” Barao invokes a softer approach on the subtly Lennon-esque track “Trying Too Hard.” Replete with mellotron “strings” and some very tasteful guitar work, the track features a haunting melody from Eric: “Your friends and my friends don’t mix, they try to hurt us with their dumb politics, maybe I’m just trying too hard.”

With a beautiful opening slide guitar part that sounds as if it came from George Harrison himself (apologies for repeated Fab referencing), “New World” is clearly a standout track.  On it, Barao conjures up a slice of wry social commentary: “Let the polar ice caps drift and drive your hybrid off a cliff, they’ve found a new solution – Let’s line the streets to point and shoot a million aerosol can salute to a new Earth.

After several nonstop listen-throughs of the album, it’s quite evident that Eric has spent a great deal of his life learning the magic formula that goes into making a great record.  Songwriting aside for the moment, Eric Barao as a complete piece of work sounds rich, warm and dense, yet all the while retains the mandatory high-gloss of today’s pop records. One would imagine this dichotomy is due in no short measure to the production team Barao amassed for the project. The enlisted control room sidemen includes Ducky Carlisle, whose mixing credits include blues legend Buddy Guy, Johnny Winter, Eddie “Knock On Wood” Floyd, and the album’s producer Bleu, who’s written songs for the likes of Selena Gomez, the Jonas Brothers and Hanson.

It’s no surprise that Barao has had his songs used in national commercials and major studio movie releases such as the hilarious Balls of Fury (a must-see flick, if for no other reason than Christopher Walken’s role as the criminal mastermind Feng.) Talent this big does not go unnoticed very long. If public taste ever returns to its collective senses and starts rewarding artists for things like clever songwriting and strong production value, Eric Barao should be a household name before long.

Review of Mardi Garcia’s Wild Horse Ranch

What exact ingredients go into the making of a great song? I have spent my entire adult life (and a good chunk of my adolescence) pondering this exact question. Suffice it to say, I’ve yet to find the magic formula, but I have been able to narrow down a handful of elements that separate the best from the rest. A good songwriter sings of faraway lands using ornate imagery in an attempt to draw a picture for the listener, spoon-feeding them any particulars necessary to flesh out said land. The great songwriter stealthily transports the listener to that distant place, as if beyond their will, if only for three or four minutes, leaving them with a sense of familiarity as if they’d been there a thousand times. And one such great writer, New England native Mardi Garcia, accomplishes such feats, and quite a few more, on her latest CD release .

In a review I wrote for Motif on Mardi Garcia six years back, I observed at the time that “her varied songwriting fodder is made up from nothing short of a geographical potpourri.” And clearly this new release only reinforces that fact, with a collection of songs reflecting personal adventures that traverse the globe from Tucson, Arizona to Dallas, Texas, all the way to Madrid, Spain and inevitably back home to Providence.

The album’s title track is a fine example of Garcia’s travelogue, detailing her days at a Tucson ranch, purportedly built on hallowed Indian burial ground: “Saguaros fat and the juniper is twisted and red the rocks piled high. The men in chains their future is a mystery, while their sentence draws nigh. And it belongs to the ghost of the past.” The song’s refrain, both catchy and poignant, expresses her intractability when being called back home by worried family members: “I don’t want to leave. I don’t want to give in, I’m stubborn like that now. And I don’t wanna’ fight, you wont find me going very far.”

Wild Horse Ranch is generally Mardi Garcia earnestly strumming along to her clean vocals, supported by a more-than-competent backing band. The combo’s strengths are on full display on the track “24 Hours In The Dark.” Inspired by a newspaper report about a controversial addiction-kicking therapeutic technique, Garcia shows a playfulness with the narrative while taking the role of the patient: Twenty-four hours in the dark and I’m a little nervous. Should I take my clothes off? No lights no sound, just the pounding in my mind. Don’t know why I did this, maybe I should sleep. You’ll get used to it, it’s only 24 hours.” 

Perhaps the darkest song on the album, “It Happened Again,” details the singer’s emotional dealings with a stalker: “Did it ever occur to you that no means no, when I tell you please let me go? You crossed that line way too many times. Broke my comfort zone and shattered my mind.” Garcia doesn’t simply take on the role of a victim, but delves deeper to further examine her own culpability: “I have this knack you know for finding your kind… It happened again, I let you in, it happened again.”

Mardi Garci is a folk singer in the truest sense of the genre. She tells personal stories about real places and genuine situations. The music itself is straightforward by design, thus leaving ample room for Garcia to unfold her vision, culled from a wealth of experience out of a lifetime fully lived.