Another Triumph from Carrie Rodriguez

Love and Circumstance
Ninth Street Opus 0001

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I was impressed by Carrie Rodriguez’s first two records, but her latest absolutely floored me. It’s a dozen covers so skillfully done that some of the original artists might be tempted to enter the witness protection program. And it’s absolutely true to the album title; Rodriguez casts herself in the role of a take-charge lover—tender on occasion, but also one not afraid to lasso a bad boy (“Steal Your Love”), be cynical (“Waltzing for Dreamers”), or admit that she’s dangerous prey (“I’m Not for Love”). When you cover songwriters like Lucinda Williams, Richard Thompson, Ry Cooder (“Big Love”), and Townes Van Zandt (“Rex’s Blues”), you’d better have the chops to back it up. Ditto forays into iconic turf such as “I Started Loving You Again”(Merle Haggard) and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” (Hank Williams). Suffice it to say that Rodriguez holds her own and more, coloring her oh-so-sweet timbre with expressive ornaments aimed at enhancing each song’s emotion core. Kudos also to producer Lee Townshend; the lush arrangements and jangly guitars on “Big Love,” “Steal Your Love,” and “I Made a Lover’s Prayer” evoke the work of Daniel Lanois, though Townshend also has the insight to let Rodriguez stretch her wings on some pure country, some indie folk, and even a Latino ballad. Rodriguez balances beauty and grit, traditional and new, complex and simple…. If this isn’t her breakthrough album there’s no justice!

Pro Sports May 1

May Day May Day

May 1 is always a good day to take stock how the hockey playoffs are going and what’s up in Major League Baseball.

No, it’s not a good time to comment on basketball; thanks to the TV contract with CBS the NBA (Numbingly Boring Association) season won’t end until two days before next season opens. The NBA is a bad product these days—horrible officiating and players who shoot handguns better than jumpers. If officials actually called traveling violations, its hyped “stars” (read LeBron James) would average 2.3 ppg. My only prediction goes out to fellow New Englanders: there’s no way the Celtics make it past Cleveland in round two.


I was way off about several predictions for the first round. I’m still stunned that New Jersey went out so quietly. Looks like Ilya Kovalchuk is as soft as critics claim. There’s a better chance you’ll see sweet corn growing in downtown Newark than Kovalchuk’s return to the Garden State. I also blew the Bruins/Sabers and Canadiens/Capitals. I really thought the Caps might make a run for the Cup; it turns out they were running for the golf course. The Bruins upset of Buffalo was less stunning given how banged up the Sabers are. I was right that the Penguins would find Ottawa pesky—a break here and there and the Pens might have gone home too. I went 4-4 in the West and pretty much called each one on the nose except I thought the Wings would dispatch Phoenix more easily.

So how about Round Two? Boston and Philly is a toss-up, but I’ll go with the latter in seven simply because the Flyers have more depth. If Tuka Rask keeps the hot hand, though, the Bruins could prevail. Montreal has given the Penguins fits all year, but the Pens should prevail on talent, unless Malkin is anxious to get back to Russia. I’ll take Pittsburgh in six.

Speaking of toss-ups, Vancouver and Chicago should be hockey at its best. It’s a shame they’re meeting in round two as they may be the best two teams in the NHL at this juncture. Just because I want to see a Canadian team move on I’ll take Vancouver in seven but the only thing that would surprise me is if the series was boring. The Red Wings looked old at times against the youthful Coyotes, but here’s betting that San Jose continues its record of losing big games: Wings in six.


It happens every April—teams not expected to do well get off to a hot start and casual fans jump on the false hopes bandwagon. The other thing that’s as predictable as an arrogant Goldman Sachs representative is that Red Sox Nation will declare the season lost after ten games (and regain their fanaticism on June 1).

Let’s start with the surprise teams and whether they will continue to startle. Toronto opened well but the wheels are already coming off. I picked them for last in the AL East. They may escape the basement, but they’re headed south. Ditto Oakland, even though it plays in the AL’s softest division. The Mets and Nationals are running 1-2 in the NL East right now. Hope they enjoy it because by June 1 they-suck-reality will have struck. And that’s truly the case for the NL West-leading Padres, who will nonetheless finish as one of the worst teams in MLB. On a more positive note, Tampa has been sizzling and though I’m not 100% sold, I may have badly underestimated the Rays. I’ll get back to you when I see what happens when Tampa gets bloodied in a Fenway or Yankee Stadium series—an inevitability in a long season. The other team that may fare better than I predicted is the Angels—not because they are particularly good, but because Texas and Seattle might not be any better.

The latter two teams are teetering on the Red Alert list. It’s only April and Texas pitching is already suspect. If Feldman, Harrison, and Harden don’t pick it up, it will be a very long summer. It may be time to trade one of their catchers for a proven arm; if the Red Sox dangle Buchholz, jump! Seattle has injuries galore, but there’s a bad vibe pall hanging over the Mariners. A .244 team batting average isn’t good enough to win. Another surprising Red Alert team is the Braves, my pick for the NL Wild Card. They’ve not pitched or fielded well, and only one starter (Prado) is hitting over .300—not good! And then there are the Reds, with a team ERA of nearly six, no starter hitting over .280, and a drug scandal hanging over a top pitcher (Volquez). If these patterns continue into June it might be time to blow up this team. For sheer incompetence, the Orioles take the cake. April was simply brutal for the O’s. We knew that their young pitchers might not be ready, but this team has too much talent to be this bad. Look for Dave Trembley to be among the first managers fired. I suppose one could also call the Cubs and Astros disappointments, though I never expected much from either. I’ve also been on the money that the Dodgers have less than meets the eye. Then there are the Royals and Pirates. Both have less talent than Taylor Swift, which is to say none. It’s criminal that either franchise is allowed to use an MLB logo.

The Giants and Twins have been pretty much as good as I thought, though I predict both will get better. Barry Zito is 3-0 and the Giants’ team ERA is under three; if this team hits moderately well it will win the NL West. And look for the Twins to begin their annual surge around mid-June. The Phillies have been uneven, but this is a glitch; this team is way too good and will catch fire when the air heats up. So will Albert Pujols of the Cardinals and that’s just scary as the dude is already playing like what he is: the best that MLB has to offer.

Okay East Coast fans, the moment you’ve been waiting for: Yankees and Red Sox updates. The skinny is that both will be fine. The Red Sox pitching is simply too good for this team to have long slumps and the Yankees will club their way up the ladder, particularly when Teixeira and A-Rod warm up. The open question is which team’s weaknesses might allow Tampa to get to the postseason.

Steal should be taken literally in the Red Sox’s case. Let’s not mince words—their catching couldn’t throw out a one-legged dog. They may need to eat PED-boy Ortiz’s contract, move Victor Martinez to DH, and get a catcher. They also need another bat; they’re deluded if they think Beltre, Scutaro, and Varitek will continue their pace (or Pedroia for that matter). The rest are what they are—average to mediocre, except for Youkilis. I’d bet the farm that he’s over .300 by season’s end.

The Yankees need Granderson to be more consistent, but that may not be in his makeup. And I don’t like any of the other offseason moves. Guess what? Nick Johnson has health issues! Who could have predicted that? Is it too early to say that Javier Vasquez II isn’t much better than the first time around? If there’s an opportunity to send him back to the NL, take it—Sergio Mirtre can give as many innings as Javy. That said, with guys slumping the Yanks are still leading the league in on-base percentage and are among the leaders in slugging and team average. Robbie Cano is the best second baseman in baseball, Andy Pettite has been awesome, Jeter continues to dazzle, Posada is playing like he’s 25, and there’s always Mariano. Be afraid… be very afraid.


Chris O'Brien CD a Winner!

Little Red
Highway 26 Music

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There are local musicians we love simply because they’re ours, and there are those who are so good we don’t have to apologize for liking them. Place Northampton, MA native Chris O’Brien in the second category. His latest project—a ten-track fan-funded CD—crackles with energy and dazzles with fine songwriting and instrumentation. O’Brien now resides in Somerville and the fingerprints of his Boston peers are all over this record. Think the vocal inflections and (occasional) high register of Ellis Paul and the forays into country-laced folk of Mark Erelli. Like the best songwriters O’Brien spins his tales compactly, eliding details and stripping facts to their basics. We’re not given the back story in “Maria,” but we learn enough in two and a half verses to know that loving her comes with perils attached. In fact, dangerous love of all sorts is a major subtheme of this album—young love “(This Old Town”, the love that comes too fast (“Hurricane Love”), the love that baffles when it’s gone (“I Don’t Know You”), and the losses you don’t get over (“Paper Doll Parade” and “Blood Like Yours”). Mix in some country pedal steel, some bluegrass banjo and mandolin, some pop hook electric guitar, and some sparse acoustic strings and there’s an awful lot of music packed into ten tracks. And yeah, he’s a western Mass lad!
Check out clips on O'Brien's Myspace page.


Jakob Dylan Concert Review

Jakob Dylan and Three Legs
Calvin Theater
Northampton, MA
April 19, 2010

Jakob Dylan performed before a half full Northampton, Massachusetts auditorium on Monday April 19 and “half full” is a pretty good way to describe the evening.

The show opened with the Portland, Oregon-based trio Mimicking Birds. This indie sensation has been generating word-of-mouth buzz, but it was hard for me to fathom what the fuss is about. A commentator on Amazon used the term “lachrymose” to describe the trio’s sound; I’d weigh in with “lethargic.” Nate Lacy has a nice voice and he effortlessly slides between a Neil Young-like wounded eagle register and tones more guttural. It was also intriguing to watch the intensity with which percussionist Aaron Hanson works his craft. For all of that, the sound was so muddy that I couldn’t make out more than a handful of Lacy’s lyrics and the overall feel of the music is akin to what one might write in the state between wakefulness and sleep. Like said moments of liminality, Mimicking Birds neither excited nor bored me—they just filled time and aural space.

As for Dylan, the first impression is how much he looks like his father. But that’s about as close as the chip gets to the block. Jakob isn’t exactly gregarious, but he does acknowledge his audience, speaks to them, and exudes warmth. (Who ever thought the words “Dylan” and “warmth” could occupy the same sentence.) Dylan wasn’t interested in playing the role of brooding artist—he actually seemed to enjoy himself on stage. It would hard not to revel in performing with Neko Case and Kelly Hogan, whose glorious voices played harmony to Dylan’s raspy and expressive lead. Most of the evening’s material was drawn from Dylan’s new record Women & Country and from Seeing Things (2008) rather than from his days fronting The Wallflowers. The Americana label has been slapped on Dylan’s more recent material, mostly because it’s rather hard to peg—some of it is country, some is pop, some is rock, and some leans to the quiet end of the folk music spectrum.

The synergy between Dylan, Case, and Hogan was easily the evening’s highlight. “Nothing But the Whole Wide World” isn’t just a good song; it’s an unforgettable one with Dylan singing the calm center while Case wails and Hogan textures with clear and ethereal tones. Case was especially at home, as one might expect as the band backing Dylan is her band. It’s a tight and talented ensemble, but the irony is that it’s also the weak link, musically speaking. There was first the volume issue. Although the sound wasn’t eardrum-bursting, it was too robust for the venue and sounded a whole lot better from the lobby than from the seventh row. The bigger issue, though, is that Dylan’s current repertoire simply sounds better stripped down. Guitarist Paul Rigby is a force who dazzled the audience on occasion. Fine, but his role is to backup, not be the spotlight. Those moments in which acoustic instruments came out were the evening’s finest.

I can’t fault Dylan for wanting to rock out with Case’s band. There were moments in which things were cooking on the high burner and the audience was juiced. Once again, however, one must distinguish between crowd-pleasers and what is most aesthetically sound. I enjoyed the show, but did not love it. The reality is that Dylan’s tiny desk concert he did at NPR studios is superior to anything he did at the Calvin. At NPR it was just Dylan, Case, Hogan, an acoustic guitar, and drop-dead gorgeous harmonies. Yeah, I know that the “folk music” label isn’t commercially lucrative these days, but if there’s ever a “Jakob Dylan Unplugged” concert, I’m there. As for the current show, I’ve seen it, it was okay, and I don’t need a refill.