Best songs of the 2010s … so far

February 13th, 2015

1. “Rolling in the Deep” by Adele (2011)

2. “Fuck You” by Cee-Lo Green (2010)

3. “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk (2013)

4. “Head” by Lydia Loveless (2014)

5. “Art of Almost” by Wilco (2011)

6. “No Church in the Wild” by Jay-Z and Kanye West, featuring Frank Ocean (2011)

7. “Emmylou” by First Aid Kit (2012)

8. “Airplanes” by B.o.B., featuring Hayley Williams (2010)

9. “Monster” by Kanye West, featuring Rick Ross, Nicki Minaj, Jay-Z and Bon Iver (2010)

10. “The Other Side” by Bruno Mars, featuring Cee-Lo Green and B.o.B. (2010)

Honorable mention:

“All About That Bass” by Meghan Trainor (2014)

“Q.U.E.E.N.” by Janelle Monae with Erykah Badu (2013)

“Pretty Saro” by Bob Dylan (2013)

“Drunk In Love” by Beyonce (2013)

“Salt” by Lori McKenna (2013)

“Wasted Days” by Cloud Nothings (2012)

“Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen (2012)

“Black Doll” by Siobhan Magnus (2011)

“Copenhagen” by Lucinda Willams (2011)

“Tik Tok” by Ke$ha (2010)

“Love the Way You Lie” by Eminem, featuring Rihanna (2010)

Best CDs of the 2010s … so far

February 12th, 2015

The Beyonce/Kanye/Beck hullaballoo at the Grammys got me thinking. With much respect to Beck (more so for his early work than his recent work), I think “Beyonce” was far and away the best of the nominees for “Best Album.” And, sure, Kanye’s a knucklehead, but he makes great albums. Halfway through the 2010s, here’s how I rank the best of pop music.

1. “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” by Kanye West (2010)

2. “Beyonce” by Beyonce (2013)

3. “Songs of Innocence” by U2 (2014)

4. “Somewhere Else” by Lydia Loveless (2014)

5. “Stone Rollin’ “ by Raphael Saadiq (2011)

6. “Pushin’ Against a Stone” by Valerie June (2013)

7. “Fossils” by Aoife O’Donovan (2013)

8. “The Civil Wars” by the Civil Wars (2013)

9. “Landing on a Hundred” by Cody Chesnutt (2012)

10. “Channel Orange” by Frank Ocean (2012)

HM: “The King of In Between” by Garland Jeffreys (2011), “The Whole Love” by Wilco (2011), “Sun Midnight Sun” by Sara Watkins (2012) and “Archandroid” by Janelle Monae (2010)


Top CDs of 2014

December 29th, 2014

2014 offered no knock-out CD like Wilco’s “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” or Kanye West’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.” As I began to narrow my favorites down to a top 20, I was interested to see some other lists. I was surprised when Rolling Stone put the new ones by U2 and Bruce Springsteen at No. 1 and 2. When they came out, I thought the U2 was pretty good (better than their last few by a long shot) but not worthy of the top pick. The Springsteen album didn’t seem worthy of consideration; the only work of his from the last 25 years I can listen to is his Pete Seeger tribute.

I listened and relistened to the contenders. Some moved up the list and some moved down. Some years have a disc that feels transformative (Nirvana’s “Nevermind,” for example). But most years, my No. 1 pick ends up being the one that I keep listening to again and again, one that’s sturdy from start to finish. As good as it is, “Lost in the Dream” by the War on Drugs didn’t pass that test. “Somewhere Else” by Lydia Loveless came close.

Kind of to my surprise, U2’s “Songs of Innocence” was the one that passed the test.

Now, consider this for a moment. U2’s first album was released in 1980. How many bands that have been around for 30 years have put out something this good? Not the Stones. Not the Who. Not Pink Floyd.

The Top Ten:

1. “Songs of Innocence” by U2 – Not iconic, like “The Joshua Tree,” or a major makeover, like “Achtung Baby,” just solid U2. There’s plenty of Edge-y guitar and Bono shows some restraint. The songs sound like they were meant to be heard with headphones and not in a huge arena (although some will translate just fine).

2. “Somewhere Else” by Lydia Loveless – An alt-country singer whose catchy songs have enough stylistic variety

3. “Food” by Kelis – Producer Dave Sitek of TV on the Radio helps the R&B singer up the oddness level on the “Milkshake” singer’s latest.

4. “Lost in the Dream” by the War on Drugs – Here’s what you’d get if Wilco tried to sound like Tom Petty.

5. “The Hum” by Hookworms – Here’s what you’d get if Sonic Youth tried to sound like the Velvet Underground.

6. “Blank Project” by Neneh Cherry – She had a dance club hit in 1989 with “Buffalo Stance” and a college radio hit in 1992 when she teamed up with Michael Stipe on “Trout.” This disc of tense, jagged R&B sounds nothing like either of those songs.

7. “Black Messiah” by D’Angelo and the Vanguard – Producer Questlove of the Roots can’t restrain the oddness level on the “Voodoo” man’s latest.

8. “Cosmos” by Yellow Ostrich — Here’s what you’d get if Radiohead tried to sound like a top 40 band.

9. “Manipulator” by Ty Segall – The garage rock album of the year (and there were a bunch of contenders).

10. “Loom” by Fear of Men – Kind of like the Cranberries but in a good way.

Honorable mention:

“LP1” by FKA Twigs, “Give My Love to London” by Marianne Faithfull, “English Oceans” by Drive-By Truckers, “Black Rat” by DZ Deathrays, “Lift Your Spirit” by Aloe Blacc, “Sun Structures” by Temples and “Hardcore Traxx: Dance Mania Records: 1986-1997” – by various artists.

The best songs:

“Head” by Lydia Loveless – Because this is an irresistible mix of lust and fury.

The rest of the top 10 (alphabetically):

“All About That Bass” by Meghan Trainor – Because I ought to be sick of this one by now, but I’m not.

“Archie, Marry Me” by Alvvays – Because this is a lovely little love song.

“Bury Our Friends” by Sleater-Kinney – Because this fierce blast from the past is an intriguing preview of a new CD (coming in January) by the reunited S-K.

“Gina Works at Hearts” by DZ Deathrays – Because we need a good thrashy punk song now and then.

“Little Maggie” by Robert Plant – Because Led Zep’s singer keeps finding ways to reinvent himself.

“Made Up English Oceans” by Drive-By Truckers – Because this band is incapable of putting out a CD that doesn’t have at least a song or two I love.

“The River” by Son Little – Because this is one funky bit of blues.

“Turn Down for What” by DJ Snake and Lil Jon – Because it’s kind of fun to shout along.

“Yes Yes Yes” -by Boyz II Men – Because who doesn’t hunger for an ode to pretzel buns.



The plight before Christmas

December 22nd, 2014

 Originally appeared in the Cape Cod Times on December 24, 2007.

(With apologies to Clement C. Moore )

‘Twas the noon before Christmas, and all ’round the mall,

Not a parking spot was open, not even one small.

Dad checked his long list, with a dull, vacant stare.

He knew Christmas Day soon would be there.

The children were nestled at home on vacation,

With dreams in their heads of a brand new PlayStation.

And Mamma at home scanned her shopping list.

Gifts for everyone, not one had she missed.

Away to the mall Dad had gone in a flash,

With presents to buy and not too much cash.

The crowds in the mall were entirely male

As they searched all about for a last-minute sale.

When what to Dad’s wondering eyes should appear,

But a personal shopper, who said, “Help is here.”

With a shake of the hand, so firm and so quick,

He gave Dad his name: “Call me Dominic.”

More rapid than NASCAR, Dad’s checklist it came.

He mumbled, then shouted, the products by name:

“An iPod, a scooter, an Xbox, a football.

“Some Gap jeans and Webkinz, a cell phone, a Bratz doll.

“My family dropped hints, some big and some small.

“Their wish lists are clear. I must have it all.”

As other men wandered the mall in a daze,

Dominic guided poor Dad through the maze.

Through Best Buy and Target and Borders they flew,

Lugging bags full of toys and new clothing, too.

And then in a panic, Dad slapped his forehead.

A thought had occurred that filled him with dread.

“How could I forget a gift for my wife?

“I’m sure to end up in the doghouse for life.”

Dad’s heart – how it pounded. His pale face was sweating.

Mom’s gift! Of all the things he could be forgetting.

Dominic’s little mouth flashed into a grin,

As he thought for a moment and tapped on his chin.

“As long as there’s room for a charge on your Visa,

“I’m sure we can find a gift that will please her.”

Dominic was cool and collected, a most charming fellow.

In spite of himself, Dad started to mellow.

Dominic spoke not a word, but went straight to work,

Finding gifts for dear Mom, so Dad won’t be a jerk.

Dominic saved bumbling Dad, without a single complaint.

Said Dad, “Nick, I tell you, you’re really a saint.”

The mall’s stores were closing. It was time to be going.

They walked to Dad’s car, their arms overflowing.

Dominic threw gifts in the trunk, with one last mighty heave,

And said, “Merry Christmas to you. See you next Christmas Eve.”


With blend of influences, Valerie June stands on her own

August 22nd, 2014

From the Cape Cod Times, Aug. 22, 2014

NORTH TRURO — “Minnie Pearl meets Diana Ross,” said Kathy.

“That’s funny. I was thinking Macy Gray meets Dolly Parton,” I said.

“How about Tracy Chapman meets Zooey Deschanel?” asked Tracy.

We’d just seen Valerie June’s eccentric talent and personality on display at the Payomet Performing Arts Center. Add up our summaries and we had her pretty well captured.

June’s 2013 CD, “Pushin’ Against a Stone,” was one of the year’s best. On the disc, Tennessee-born June sounds like an Appalachian Macy Gray on one song, a ’60s girls group on another and Alison Krauss on another. It’s rock-solid stuff.

On that debut CD, June got some help from legendary keyboard player Booker T. Jones and guitarist Dan Auerbach of the blues-rock duo the Black Keys, among others. In her show Wednesday night, she was on her own, except for her guitar, her banjo and her “baby,” a banjo ukulele.

June describes her mixture of country, folk, blues, rock and soul as “organic moonshine roots music.” She added some country flavor to the traditional gospel song “This World Is Not My Home.” She sang her own “Rain Dance” as a twangy scat song, accompanied by some jangly guitar.

On the blues chestnut “Rollin’ and Tumblin’,” her banjo strumming picked up speed, like a train accelerating on a downhill track. On other songs, including “Workin’ Woman Blues,” she attacked her guitar strings with the ferocity of folk-punk player Ani DiFranco. At the end of Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home to Me,” she coaxed the (willing) crowd into a sing-along.

Her vocals were served up with a mix of Memphis twang and old bluesman growl that sometimes made it hard to decipher the lyrics, but the emotions came through. You get the sense that June is still exploring the songs and not just churning them out the same way every night.

June played 16 songs, some of them barely two minutes long, during her 85-minute show, filling the rest of the time with stories, talking about cooking in her apartment in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn or scribbling down notes in the blank back pages of a novel when some song lyrics came to her in the middle of the night.

She said her CD title, “Pushin’ Against a Stone,” was a tribute to those who’d helped her along the way. “The more you go up the hill, the more dust that stone gathers. You push it a lot and it rolls back. You get people helping you, you get all these hands, and you end up rolling it pretty good.”

June wore spangly sandals, a blue polka-dotted skirt and a red leather jacket, with her massive dreadlocks in a gravity-defying tower. Lifting the banjo strap over her hair is “the hardest part of the day,” she said. “When you like your job and your hair, you just roll with it.”

June has too much energy to release it all through her vocals and strings. She finished one song with a short rooster-strut dance step. On another, she sat on a stool but kicked one or both legs while she played guitar.

Two-thirds of the way through the show, it struck me that June is a wiser, music-world version of the movies’ manic pixie dream-girl character, with her eccentric, at times girlish personality (think Deschanel in “500 Days of Summer”). Time spent with June is time well spent.


Top 10 CDs of 2013

December 27th, 2013

1. “Beyonce” by Beyonce (Columbia) – Some years I have months to absorb my favorite CD of the year. Not this year. Released on Dec. 13 with no advance publicity, Beyonce’s latest is filled with songs that will be hits in 2014. The music is sexy and the lyrics are frank enough to make Barry White blush.

2. “Pushin’ Against a Stone” by Valerie June (Concord) – My favorite CD of the year, until Dec. 13, and maybe it will hold up better than Beyonce’s disc in the long run. Memphis-based June sounds like an Appalachian Macy Gray on one song, a ’60s girls group on another and Allison Kruass on another. Rock-solid stuff.

3. “Fossils” by Aoife O’Donovan (Yep Roc) – A former member of the neo-bluegrass band Crooked Still, O’Donovan sings a bit like Shawn Colvin, but has a much broader stylistic reach.

4. “The Civil Wars” by The Civil Wars (Sensibility Recordings/Columbia Records) – The second CD by the alt-folk duo might be its last. Months before this gem was released, singer-songwriters Joy Williams and John Paul White announced the act was going on hiatus, citing “internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition.”

5. “El Valiente” by Pinata Protest (Saustex Media) – This San Antonio quartet is a Tex-Mex version of the Pogues.

6. “Massachusetts” by Lori McKenna (Hoodie Songs / Liz Rose Music) – One of the strongest works yet, which is saying something, by this Stoughton, Mass., singer-songwriter, who mixes some country twang into her contemporary folk songs.

7. “Adrian Younge Presents the Delfonics” by the Delfonics and Adrian Younge (Wax Poetics) – You probably haven’t heard anything from the Delfonics since their 1970 Top 10 hit, “Didn’t I (Blow Your Mind This Time).” Composer-producer Adrian Younge worked with original Delfonic William Hart to create a retro-soul classic.

8. “American Love” by Bad Rabbits (Bad Records) – Retro-funk from a Boston band whose lyrics could make Beyonce blush.

9. “An Appointment With Mr. Yeats” by the Waterboys (Proper American) – Setting the poetry of William Butler Yeats to Celtic-folk/rock could be a recipe for disaster. Instead it’s the best album by Mike Scott since the Waterboys’ “Fisherman’s Blues” was released in 1988.

10. “Among the Grey” by Cheyenne Mize (Yep Roc) – Rounding out the Top 10 with a little Siouxsie Sioux here, a little Bat for Lashes there and a whole lot of spacy folk-rock.

Honorable mention: “AM” by Arctic Monkeys; “Nomad” by Bombino; “Old”by Danny Brown; “The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You” by Neko Case; “Monomania” by Deerhunter; “Slow Focus” by the Fuck Buttons; “Same Trailer, Different Park” by Kacey Musgraves; “Silence Yourself” by Savages; “Doris” by Earl Sweatshirt; “Cerulean Salt” by Waxahatchee; “Dig Thy Savage Soul” by Barrence Whitfield and the Savages; and “Yeezus” by Kanye West

Favorite songs: “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk; “Q.U.E.E.N.” by Janelle Monae (w/ Erykah Badu); “Pretty Saro” by Bob Dylan; “Drunk In Love” by Beyonce; “Salt” by Lori McKenna; “Brainfreeze” by the Fuck Buttons; “Hudson” by Vampire Weekend; “Mercy” by TV on the Radio; “Invisible” by Steve Earle; and “Man” by Neko Case

Bringing ‘Massachusetts’ to Cotuit

November 7th, 2013

from the Cape Cod Times, Nov. 7, 2013

If you listen to a country radio station, you’ve heard a lot of Lori McKenna’s handiwork lately.

Hunter Hayes had a No. 2 hit a few weeks ago with “I Want Crazy.” Little Big Town made the country Top 40 with “Your Side of the Bed” and the group’s current single, “Sober,” is climbing the charts.

Those three songs have Nashville written all over them, but they were co-written by McKenna, who lives in Stoughton, a town 15 miles south of Boston. McKenna (who’ll perform Saturday at the Cotuit Center for the Arts) built her reputation as a performer in Boston’s contemporary folk scene, but over the past decade she’s become known behind the scenes as someone with a gift for writing hit songs for other people.

“I want some woman who’s driving home after a bad day to be listening to the radio and hear a song that sparks a human connection,” McKenna said in a recent phone interview. “I don’t have to be the one singing it, but that’s the kind of song I want to be a part of.”

McKenna said Tom Petty and Bruce Springsteen are her favorite songwriters. “As rich and famous as they are, they can still write something that affects you or me or my husband who’s a plumber and doesn’t even like music that much,” she said.

Long before she was writing songs that were recorded by Faith Hill (“Fireflies”), Keith Urban (“The Luxury of Knowing”), Allison Krauss & Union Station (“My Love Follows You Where You Go”) and others, McKenna wrote songs to entertain herself and her family members.

“I’d play a song or two while we were sitting around the kitchen, having a beer,” she said. “I started doing open mikes because my sister-in-law and one of my best friends talked me into it.

“As soon as I stuck my neck out, someone was there to say, stick your neck out more. Every time something would stop me, something else would open up. I always tell my kids, you have to take a risk.”

When she released her 1998 debut CD, “Paper Wings & Halo,” Boston folk station WUMB named McKenna the new artist of the year. Critical raves continued for her next CDs, “Pieces of Me” (2001) and “Bittertown” (2004), a Springsteen-style series of songs about life in a small town. McKenna’s blend of folk, country and rock drew comparisons to Lucinda Williams and Kasey Chambers.

McKenna’s gifts came to the attention of country superstars Faith Hill and Tim McGraw. Hill recorded three of McKenna’s songs, including the title song, on her 2005 blockbuster, “Fireflies.” McGraw and Hill took McKenna on the road as the opening act for their stadium tour, and McGraw co-produced McKenna’s 2007 CD, “Unglamorous,” her only CD to be released on a major label (Warner Bros.).

“That whole ride, it was like an invitation,” said McKenna. “I found an adoptive home in Nashville. I learned through Nashville that what I’m good at is collaborating on writing songs – helping someone pull out what they want to say.

“I don’t think I’m the best singer or the best anything, but I feel like I belong. Nashville gave me that confidence.”

McKenna’s productive enough that she has plenty of songs for herself. She released a CD in 2011 (“Lorraine”), a six-song digital-only EP last year (“Heart Shaped Bullet Hole”) and another CD in April (“Massachusetts”).

For the new CD, she had producer Mark Erelli (a singer-songwriter who’ll open her Cotuit show) narrow the batch of songs from 70 to 14. While “Pieces of Me” looked at family life and “Bittertown” explored the tapestry of small-town life, “Massachusetts” is an exploration of romantic love.

“People don’t listen to records from front to back as much as they used to,” said McKenna. “But I asked Mark, ‘What if we put it in order from saddest to happiest?’”

The CD starts with “Salt,” which is almost startling in the narrator’s scorn for a past lover. “The opening scene has to be dramatic – something bad happened, like a movie,” said McKenna.

Working titles for the CD included “Crooked Road” and “Middleville,” but none of the ideas worked for every song. In the end, she went with “Massachusetts” as a tribute to the scene that nurtured her and the talented local musicians who backed her up on the CD.

“Each of my last four records has been different,” she said. “Now at 44, it’s like anything goes. It’s all self-expression. You can’t repeat yourself.”

When asked if there’s anyone else she’d like to see cover one of her songs, McKenna paused for a moment.

“I’m always bugging Mr. McGraw. We’ve written five songs together and he hasn’t recorded any of them yet.

“What else could possibly happen? James Taylor would be incredible.”

Until then the woman from Stoughton will keep writing songs for singers in Nashville. How does a woman from New England have so much twang in her voice and intonations?

“My Stoughton accent is so strong – it’s not a Boston accent – so I just started copying people,” McKenna said. “When I’m around people with accents, I want to pretend I have that accent.

“All the characters on ‘Massachusetts’ remind me of a neighbor or someone I went to high school with, my friends, my husband or my kids’ friends. I need to not have a super strong self-identity, so I can write about other characters.”


Hit List

We asked Lori McKenna what she’s been listening to lately. Her response:

* “I admire Katy Perry. I think ‘Teen Age Dream’ is one of the best songs to come out of any genre. ‘Roar’ makes people feel good. ‘Roar’ is huge in my car.”

* “21” by Adele – “That doesn’t get old.”

* “The last record I bought was ‘The Civil Wars’ by the Civil Wars. I had a couple of long drives and that was one I put in to study. The tension of what they do, the drama.”

* “We Have Made a Spark by Rose Cousins – “Hers is the only female voice on ‘Massachusetts’ besides mine. She’s just remarkable. I can’t compare her to anyone else but her voice is absolutely stunning.”




Lily Tomlin at the Tent

July 26th, 2013

“I didn’t always want to be a gifted actress,” Lily Tomlin confessed midway through her show Thursday night (July 25) at the Cape Cod Melody Tent. “I wanted to be a waitress. When I lost a tooth, my father left a quarter under a plate.”

She left her childhood home in Detroit to go to New York to become a waitress. “I knew it was going to be tough. All I could get was work on Broadway. It was my third year on ‘Laugh In’ when I gave up all hope of becoming a waitress. I knew I was going to have settle for being a star.”

That she is. She’s gained acclaim on TV (from “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh In” to “Malibu Country,” winning five Emmys along the way), in the movies (“Nashville,” “Nine to Five” and “I Heart Huckabees”), on stage (the Tony-winning one-woman show “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe”) and on recordings (the Grammy-winning comedy album “This Is a Recording”).

On stage, Tomlin comes across as relaxed and friendly, without the amped-up agitation of so many comics. Her wry humor is delivered through a mix of nostalgic stories, snappy stand-up lines and bits by classic characters.

Archival videos on three big screens introduced some of those characters, including Ernestine the tart-tongued telephone operator and beauty-products spokeswoman Judy Beasley. Each of them was pulled into contemporary times. Edith Ann, an eternal 6-year-old, complained about an older sister who spent all her time with her iPod, iPad and iPhone, while Beasley pitched a product designed to improve the sex lives of suburban housewives.

One of the highlights was the segment where Tomlin transformed into Ernestine, who now works taking phone calls for a health-insurance company. Some of her responses to a caller: “An apple a day keeps the doctor away. So does being poor. … Being blind is a pre-existing condition. You should have read the fine print. … Of course we don’t cover acupuncture. I was just needling you. … Remember, your health is our business, not our concern.”

Tomin delivered two sets of about an hour each, including a post-show question-and-answer section. Throughout she veered barely into PG territory only a few times, and the closest she came to using a dirty word was when she described how clean-cut life was in the Detroit of her childhood. “If someone painted that word on an overpass, by the next morning some adult would have changed it to Buick.”

Tomlin tread lightly into politics. Mentioning the nearby nuclear power plant, she said, “Many Cape Codders are protesting Pilgrim. Many Native Americans are still protesting the Pilgrims.” As for same-sex marriage, “If all of us homosexuals started imitating heterosexuals, it could be a slippery slope. What’s next? Monster truck rallies?”

If you were looking for signs of intelligent life Thursday night, there was plenty of evidence on stage at the Melody Tent.

Parkingtons and Spampinatos caught up in sibling revelry

July 19th, 2013

parkingtons spampsphotos by Suzie Glover: from left, Ariel Parkington, Sarah Parkington, Nora Parkington and Rose Parkington; Lou Cataldo, Aaron Spade, Joey Spampinato and Johnny Spampinato


Imagine a bar with a jukebox that plays Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Easy to picture a joint like that, right? Now imagine a jukebox that plays Leadbelly, Dolly Parton, Prince and Radiohead. It’s a bit harder to picture what that bar would look like, but if you’re musically adventurous, it’s one you’d want to check out.

The Spampinato Brothers are the personification of the first jukebox, and the Parkington Sisters recreate the second one. Both Cape-based bands performed Thursday night, and a few lucky folks were in the audience for both shows.

Born in the Bronx (but we’ll forgive them for that), Joey and Johnny Spampinato are among the Cape’s rock royalty. Bassplayer Joey was a founding member of NRBQ and has performed with Berry, Keith Richards and Eric Clapton. Guitarist Johnny is a member of the Incredible Casuals and was a longtime member of NRBQ. Aaron Spade of the Casuals joins them on guitar. At Thursday’s show at the gazebo at Nauset Beach, Lou Cataldo, who’s played with the Freeze and a zillion other Cape bands, sat in on drums.

The Spampinato brothers play good old, power-pop rock ’n’ roll – kind of like the great British group Rockpile but with some American grittiness thrown in. (And if you’re not familiar with Rockpile, whose only studio album, the classic “Seconds of Pleasure,” came out 33 years ago, well, it’s never too late to catch up.)

In Thursday’s show, they played a mix of Spampinato Brothers originals (“Let Him Think on That” with Everly-Brothers-by-way-of-the-Beatles-style harmonizing and the goofy “A Bear Is a Bear Is a Bear”), some NRBQ gems (“It’s a Wild Weekend” and “That I Get Back Home”) and classic covers (Frankie Ford’s “Sea Cruise,” Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” and the Beatles’ “You Can’t Do That”).

The Spampinato Brothers show was part of the Arts Foundation of Cape Cod/TD Bank series of free concerts, which continue at 6 p.m. Mondays-Fridays in eight towns through Aug. 1.

Two towns over and a couple of hours later, the Parkington Sisters performed a hometown throwdown at the Wellfleet Beachcomber.

Opening for the Parkingtons was the Sacred Mounds, a hipster-rock duo that’s a weird combination of mostly Ween and a little White Stripes. Their set included a song about the pro wrestling world of 1986.

Classically trained musicians, the Parkingtons perform what’s been described as “indie-folk.” That’s not quite right. On stage, they are less restrained and less delicate than they can be on CD. They rocked. This is, after all, a band that has toured with the Dropkick Murphys, a Boston-based Celtic-punk group.

The Parkingtons’ is not the traditional rock lineup. They performed violin (Ariel, Sarah and Nora), viola (Sarah and Ariel), electric guitar (Sarah and Rose), acoustic guitar (Rose), percussion (Nora, Rose and Sarah), keyboards (Rose and Ariel), strap-on Roland synthesizer (Rose and Nora), solo vocals (all of them) and harmonizing vocals (all of them).

“Cruel,” a gonzo, funky country ballad, was an early highlight. The earnest folk ballad “Me Oh My” was made extra intense by Ariel and Nora’s violin work. “Drowning in Blue” sounded like what would have happened if Sinead O’Connor in her primal rock days had tried to make a disco song (and succeeded).

The second half of the show leaned more on covers, including Parton’s “Jolene,” Dan Auerbach’s “Trouble Weighs a Ton” and Leadbelly’s “In the Pines,” which started more like the “O Brother, Where Art Thou” sirens than Kurt Cobain’s tortured version, but slowly ratcheted up in tension.

Younger sister Lydia, a former member of the group, came on stage near the end of the show to sing lead on “Sailor,” which was delivered as part country stomp, part sea chantey.

The Sacred Mounds joined in for the last few songs, including the Parkingtons’ “Deerheart,” a ballad that featured six vocalists; Prince’s “Controversy,” which was somewhat sloppy but still stellar; and Radiohead’s “Karma Police,” a show-closing audience sing-along.

By year’s end, I’ll have seen some bigger names perform, but I doubt I’ll have seen a better show.

R.I.P., Richie Havens

April 22nd, 2013

Richie Havens died on April 22, 2013. I interviewed him for a story that ran in the Cape Cod Times on Nov. 19, 2001. 

Still singing for freedom

Illustration by Jim Warren/Cape Cod Times

Illustration by Jim Warren/Cape Cod Times

It’s been more than 30 years, so you might think Richie Havens would be tired of talking about Woodstock.

“Oh, no, not at all,” says the folk singer, who performs Saturday in Provincetown

“I’ve come to learn that it didn’t belong to me in the first place. It belongs to everyone,” he says of the song he first performed as an extemporaneous variation on the traditional spiritual “Motherless Child.” He delivered it as part of his festival-opening performance on July 16, 1969. “It came out of me and came through me, without my knowledge that I was going to sing that.”

Havens was supposed to be the fifth performer to take the stage for that celebration of peace and love. But the scheduled start time was four hours in the past and the concert promoters were begging Havens to perform.

Why him? The crowd was so much larger than anticipated that musicians had to be flown to the stage by helicopter from a nearby farm. Since Havens and his band had the smallest pile of instruments, they were pushed to the head of the line.

When he got to the stage in Bethel, N.Y., Havens looked out at the faces – hundreds of thousands of faces.

One thought passed through his mind: “Gosh, they’re going to throw stuff at me.”

Scheduled to play for 20 minutes, Havens gave the promoters some breathing room to get their act together (more or less) by performing for three hours. When he ran out of material, he just made up a song. That song, “Freedom,” became one of the highlights of the Woodstock film.

“I had nothing else to sing, and it just came together,” he says during a phone call from West Palm Beach, Fla., where he was scheduled to perform with Judy Collins, Roger McGuinn and Janis Ian – the same lineup that performed at the Melody Tent in Hyannis in August.

“There hasn’t been a country I’ve been to where that song wasn’t what the people wanted to hear.”
Havens, 60, says that the Woodstock crowd was even larger than “official” estimates.

“The numbers, believe it or not, were 520,000 people the first day. The newspaper said 250,000. They do that to everything they fear. They halve it so people think it’s less than it is.

“In the film, when the camera is behind me and you see people starting to stand and clap, most people don’t realize that there is another field over the top of that hill almost as big as the field you’re looking at. That field was filled as well. They never even saw the stage.

“When I flew over them, the first thing that came to mind was what became the title of my book: ‘They can’t hide us anymore.'” (The memoir was released in 1999.)

Havens says the lessons from Woodstock still matter.

“It was the most peaceful thing, the most conscious thing, that had happened with that many people in this country. As young people, we had been put upon by our own government in a way that made us very afraid.

“All we wanted to be was real Americans. We wanted to work with other people and negotiate, rather than fight with them. We knew it wasn’t the people’s fault that there was war. It’s never the people’s fault. It’s always the government.

“It’s up to us to say what really happens.

“A lot of the young people I talk to want to know what the ’60s were about. It wasn’t about music. It was about consciousness being put through the music of a generation. That consciousness became world consciousness. World peace was what my whole generation was about.”

Of course, Havens’ career didn’t begin or end with Woodstock. His latest CD, “Wishing Well,” will be released tomorrow. Along with some Havens originals, it includes a cover of Pink Floyd’s “On the Turning Away.”

Born in Brooklyn, Havens organized several street-corner doo-wop groups when he was a teenager, but his first performances were in a less visible place.

“We had wonderful parks in Brooklyn,” he says. “I spent a lot of time in the tops of trees with my friends, just getting away from the cement. We weren’t basketball players, which is why we turned into singers in the trees. The doo-wop thing was our way of expressing community.”

When he was 20, Havens plunged into the Greenwich Village folk scene. The first two albums he recorded weren’t released at the time. “Mixed Bag,” a 1967 album that featured covers of songs by Bob Dylan and the Beatles, pushed him to the folk foreground.

After Woodstock, Havens had the audience to stay on the road nearly full time and the clout to push social causes.

In the ’70s, he co-founded a children’s oceanographic museum in the Bronx. In 1990, he founded the Natural Guard, a children’s environmental-action organization with chapters around the world. “It’s run by the kids themselves,” Havens says. “Kids have the answers to the big questions on this planet.”

Havens has worked on other peace and justice causes over the years. Saturday’s concert is a benefit for the Leonard Peltier Defense Committee ( Peltier is serving consecutive life sentences for the murder of two FBI agents on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota in 1975. Peltier maintains he was not the killer, and many activists feel he was not granted a fair trial.

Havens sees much still to be done, but is quick to point out that the world has seen some changes for the better since the Woodstock era.

“Over the last 30 years, we have changed so much and we haven’t even acknowledged it,” he says. “We haven’t patted ourselves on the back for surviving the craziness that the world throws on us.”