Magic From West Whately (Wherever That Is)

Impressive music in an unassuming place.

Big or little? What’s the best venue in which to hear music? While not much can compare to the sensory feast and technical glitz of a big arena show, and a Woodstock-like festival can be like stepping into a parallel universe, when it comes down to hearing the music rather than having an “experience,” small is beautiful. I was reminded of this recently by three very intimate concerts in an unlikely venue in an even more unlikely place.

West Whately, Massachusetts could be the poster child for the old New England joke punch line “You can’t get there from here.” There is no there there. If there’s a village “center” I’ve never found it; West Whately is more of a geographic designation for scattered farms and homes that aren’t close enough to other towns to be counted as part of them. But it does sport a 19th-century wooden church, the West Whatley Chapel. It sits at the end of a pond formed by an earthen dam, woods on one side and a tidy farm on the other. It’s also the site of Watermelon Wednesdays, a June through September concert series organized by a local, Paul Newlin, whose ΓΌber-friendly black lab is a regular attendee. About a hundred folks gather weekly to sit on folding chairs and hear amazing musicians, many of whom record at nearby Signature Sounds. Think that life has gotten too complicated? Take in one of these concerts and step back in time. Lots of times the musicians don’t even plug in, but even when they do, it’s to the single thin amp that sits on the “stage,” a slightly raised platform where the pulpit once stood. There are no monitors, and the “stage lights” consist of clip-on lamps rigged together with extension cords. The chapel is a literal bats-in-the-belfry place. At intermission the audience goes outside to eat watermelon—free with your $15 ticket--and watch the bats dart out to the pond to feed. (Alas! White fungus disease has decimated their numbers as of late.)

So what kind of music can you hear? Grammy Award winner Laurie Lewis showed up in July with a passel of old-time songs and some fiddle prowess that shows why she’s also won some International Bluegrass Music Association prizes. The California-based Lewis was in her element in a place that could be transported to the Appalachians without culture shock. Her spare show reminded that music is supposed to be about voice and a few instruments—anything more and it’s spectacle.

August was ushered out by some locals who have made waves and have joined forces: Four Toads in a Basket. An odd name I grant you. It came from a (very) failed pick-up line used on Tracy Grammer, one of the “Toads” and a name just about everyone knows from her past partnership with the late, great Dave Carter, and her recent collaborations with the talented Jim Henry, another Toad. Their fellow wart-givers are the golden-voiced Ben Demerath, and producer/musician Dave Chalfant, perhaps best known for his bass guitar work with The Nields. Four Toads was playing just their second show, but they’re already playing as if they’re really enchanted princes and princesses. Or maybe angels in tight four-part harmony. Their work-in-progress repertoire is almost impossible to describe. Suffice it to say that it ranges from traditional songs to The Rolling Stones and they don’t miss many stops in between. Think Michael Jackson is dead? Listen to Demerath cover him before you draw that conclusion!

Several weeks later I went to hear Aoife O’Donovan, who is also the lead singer for Crooked Still and Sometimes Why, and a candidate for the coveted Tina Fey Cute Glasses Award. Her show was the opposite of the Four Toads in that just one voice, O’Donovan’s, was on display in all its sweet, willowy tones reminiscent of a less-nasal Alison Krauss. She appeared with three band members, including Ryan Scott, who wielded a mighty steel body resonator guitar, but true to the West Whately formula the two guitars/bass/drum kit ensemble made a powerful but controlled-volume racket. It was a lovely evening of ambient songs such as “The Burning,” a bit of grit (“Oh Mama”), and one of the best covers of Joni Mitchell’s “Urge for Going” I’ve ever heard.

The season’s almost over, but if you live anywhere nearby you’ll want to check out the Sweetback Sisters on September 28. The rest of you should plan a summer 2012 vacation to West Whately. Just don’t look for brochures at the travel agency.


Remembering 9/12, the Bigger Tragedy

The eagle we let get away.

Yesterday was the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania. I don’t want to add to the grief, the anguish, or the anger over 9/11. I want to talk instead about 9/12, a day in my view that should have become more important than 9/11. What, after all, can one really say about 9/11? That it was horrific? That it was unfair? That those responsible for it are barbaric? That it shattered the lives of survivors? That it shocked the nation? Tick all those boxes, but in my mind there was an even bigger tragedy: the squandering of 9/12.

Do we remember 9/12? We should. On that day nearly all of the world stood in solidarity with the United States and was ready to commit to a unified war on terror. The exceptions? Iran and Palestine, especially the latter. Lest we forget, thousands of Palestinians danced on the streets in celebration of the attacks. So what did the U.S. do? We blew it. We allowed jingoism, hypernationalism, and a cadre of evildoers in our own midst lead us astray. We made Osama bin-Laden into a hero and turned erstwhile allies into skeptics and enemies. We reelected a faux “war president” (or was it “elected” him for the first time) and allowed him to ruin the US economy, destroy American prestige, and trash what was potentially the greatest political alliance in human history.

Can we finally admit that the biggest security challenge facing the United States was the Bush administration? The idiotic decision to go to war against Iraq was based on personal pique, not credible evidence. We called it Operation Iraqi Freedom, but much of the rest of the world called it what it was: reckless cowboy adventurism. The cost has been enormous. As of September 12, we’ve spent nearly $800 billion on Iraq. Go to http://costofwar.com/en/ and watch America’s financial security melt away. If one factors in hidden costs such as the spike in oil prices since the Iraq invasion, interest on the national debt, weapons depletion, administrative costs, and other such like, the true cost is over $3 trillion—a sizable chunk of that debt Republicans created and over which they now cry crocodile tears. It has also cost 4,792 U.S. and “coalition” lives as of today, a figure that exceeds the loss of life associated with 9/11 by 1,816.

“Coalition” deserves to be put in quote marks. Other than assistance from Britain under the vacuous Tony Blair, the military alliance was a lie from the get-go, unless one actually believes that nations such as Tonga, Albania, Mongolia, El Salvador, and the Dominican Republic are lean, mean, fighting machines. But at least there were 40 of them at one time; now there are none—not even Britain. Unlike the United States, citizens elsewhere demanded that troops be withdrawn. Talk about tragedies! I feel very badly for those who died, but there is simply no way to avoid it: Americans died in vain. There is no, as in zero, connection between their mission and American freedom. We may call them heroes if it makes us feel better, but history will judge them “victims” and add them to the 9/11 toll.

There is also the matter of over 100,000 Iraqi dead. It will be decades before any semblance of normality has a chance of being restored in Iraq and who would be surprised if an Islamist government emerges from the chaos. Was Saddam Hussein a horrible man? Yes. Was Iraq better off under him? Yes again. Was the US better off under Saddam? Yes a third time. As the old adage goes, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Congratulations Bush/Cheney/Rice—your stupidity created a power vacuum that destabilized the region and strengthened the two groups who like the US the least: Iranian clerics and Hamas. It also put more stress on our greatest ally: Israel.

These days we’re busy patting ourselves on the back for Arab spring; that is, the blind faith that democracy is about to bloom in the desert. Really? Has it escaped our collective notice that many of the groups seeking to topple their governments are those who don’t actually like the United States? Last week’s attack on the Israeli embassy in Cairo and the steady stream of rhetoric coming out of the region suggests that Arab spring is giving way to Anti-Semitism fall. Much of it is led, of course, by Iran, the nation we made the de facto regional power by taking out its only serious regional rival: Iraq. Don’t get me started on the number of previously nonexistent terror groups that got their start, recruits, and sustaining capital because of the US invasion of Iraq.

Let’s not forget to add Hamas to the hates-America list. Palestine surges forward in its plan to bring an immediate-statehood plan before United Nations. It’s led by Hamas and please spare me the “it was democratically elected” line; Hamas led the 9/11 celebration ten years ago and would be even happier to witness the sequel. The US will surely veto Palestinian statehood under a Hamas government, but if the UN even debates the topic without making Israeli recognition a prerequisite for discussion, I say pull out and redevelop that valuable New York City real estate upon which the UN currently sits.

The UN probably will debate Palestinian statehood if, for no other reason, the US opposes it. Suggested movie title: “Hey, Dude, Where are My Allies?” Just who does stand with the US these days? Europeans have a debt crisis of their own, but no one worries about the impact of the value of the U.S. dollar on the Common Market economy. Nor do they sit around and wonder how the U.S. can help resolve conflicts in Asia Minor or the Balkans. The Chinese politely ignore overtures to pressure North Korea; Russia gives her tacit blessing to crackdowns against Syrian dissidents. And a single word sums up the manner in which the global war on terrorism has collapsed: Pakistan.

I mourn for those who died on September 11, but I keen and wail for the victims of September 12. We had a moment and we let it slip from our grasp.

Sarah Sample Best When She's Sarah Simple


Someday, Someday


* * ½

Sarah Sample has a sweet voice with a lovely catch in it, the kind we want to hear. The open question, though, is whether we can hear it. Someday, Someday is a mixed bag of bulls eyes and misfires. Sample’s voice is what you might get if you added some twang to Cyndi Lauper and took away the gale force power. Sample airs it out from time to time, but there’s not a lot of grit to it. As a rule, this album dazzles when she keeps things simple, but stumbles when attempts at flash set off warning lights.

The album opens with the bouncy “I’m Ready,” a charming country pop song with a good hook. She follows with the simpler “Calling Your Name,” which isn’t as catchy, but is actually more suited to her voice. And so the roller coaster ride begins. “Shadows of a Song” is nice, but it calls for more sultriness than Sample musters, whereas the simple, stripped down “One Mistake” is gorgeous and affecting. The pop jazz treatment to “Be My Middle Ground” works really well, but the Wrecking Ball-like ambience of “Don’t Bury Me” serves mainly to remind that she’s no Emmylou Harris. The grunge-meets-country-meets hand jive “Staying Behind” is cool, but Sample’s voice gets drowned in the mix; whereas the finger-snapping ukulele-driven “Holiday” evokes 1920s flapper jazz and is pure funky fun.

Get the point that this CD is inconsistent? Don’t get me wrong; it’s definitely worth a listen. At the risk of a horrible play on words, you should sample Sample. There’s a lot of talent here, but in my view she needs to decide if her forte is west Texas or west LA.