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Your Own Back Yard – Michael Gillan Maxwell

Visual Art – Creative Writing – Social Commentary

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Americana

From North Beach

North Beach (1)

Like Quicksand

We walk the streets of North Beach
follow the footsteps of Ferlinghetti
and the ghosts of Ginsberg and Kerouac.
In Washington Square Park,
under St. Peter and Paul’s twin spires,
an old hippie sits on a bench,
finger picks a vintage Epiphone guitar.

Next to him, another man
stares off into space,
cradles his mandolin, listens.
Joe Dimaggio marries Marilyn Monroe
in that church, she lifts her veil,
steals a kiss on the granite steps;
here in Joe’s home town.

Italian restaurants and coal fired pizza,
storied nightclubs and tattoo parlors,
psychic readers, butchers, bakers
and kite makers.
The City Lights Bookstore
stands like a shrine, a beacon.
Ground zero for a revolution.

A man lies fast asleep on the ground, under
a sparkling, golden sky and a pile of clothes
in the middle of the afternoon.
Some changes happen before we notice,
others sneak by under our noses,
but Time, a slow train runnin’
creeps up like quicksand.

Concert Review ~ Greg Brown

Greg Brown at The Hangar Theater

Greg Brown at The Hangar Theater ~ Ithaca, N.Y. March 16, 2012

Dan Smalls Presents presented Greg Brown played at Ithaca’s Hangar Theater on Friday March 16. Hats off to Dan Smalls for bringing someone like Greg Brown to a venue like The Hangar.  It was the perfect venue for this concert; small, intimate, with great acoustics, and not a bad seat in the house. It’s the kind of venue that allowed Greg Brown to establish a personal rapport with an appreciative audience. Perfect fit – Slam Dunk – Total Home Run!

Greg Brown has been an icon on the singer-songwriter scene for a long, long time. He’s from Iowa, born there, grew up there, and even with the peripatetic life style of a troubadour, he still calls it home. My curiosity was piqued by this because I grew up in the midwest and spent a couple of formative years of my childhood in Iowa. I’d heard some of his music, the odd track here and there on various anthologies, and he was a regular on A Prairie Home Companion, but it wasn’t until his epic 2000 release, Convenant, that I got totally hooked. This is one of those rare collections on which every song is a perfect, sparkling jewel. I’ve almost worn out the grooves on this CD from playing it so much. Oh wait, CDs don’t have grooves, but you get the picture. After 12 years and a lot of other music, this still remains one of my favorite collections of anyone’s music. I’ve been waiting to see Greg Brown ever since Covenant came out, and his performance at The Hangar exceeded all my expectations. Part of the beauty was that nearly every song he played was new to me. His planned playlist did not stop him from spontaneously going down unexpected roads. He also played songs “that he wasn’t sure he could remember” and “that just popped into my head.” His cover of Merle Haggard’s Where Did America Go was so poignant, heartfelt and timely that it almost brought me to tears. I so admire that kind of authenticity, and I am honored that he felt comfortable enough with us to take those risks.

Greg Brown is tough to hang a label on. Is he a folk singer – a singer of Americana – a blues musician – a humorist – a story teller ? He is all of these and more. Although, one thing I know for sure, he’s not an opera singer. But I like that about him. His voice is deep, rich and sonorous; often dipping so low down into the bass range that it almost feels like he’s slipping off the edge of the planet, or at least off the edge of his chair, and taking you with him. His vocal style is so relaxed, loose and casual that it feels like he’s not even really trying to sing, almost approaching the notes with a loose approximation before finally zeroing in. But it works – damn it – it really works. His voice reminds me of the most comfortable pair of jeans you’ve ever worn, or a 20 year old Kentucky bourbon that slides down like velvet and warms you right down to where you live. And it’s not an affectation. It’s Greg Brown singing only the way Greg Brown can sing. He fully inhabits his voice and uses it as a true vehicle to tell the stories in his songs.

This is all supported by flawless, crisp guitar technique. An absolute virtuoso of finger picking technique mixed with rich, lustrous strumming, he frequently employs dropped note tunings to add a deep bottom end. Greg Brown is also one wicked good blues player. The first few songs were so deeply rooted in the blues it felt like my feet were stuck in Mississippi River mud. He sings songs and tells stories about people and places, Iowa farmers, long, quiet highways in the midwest that go on forever, love, loss, nature, raising children, dogs, sticky situations, aging and everyday life. Greg Brown is truly authentic and one of a kind. It was a great concert. I loved it, and I’ve already listened to Covenant twice today. If you listen to Pandora Radio, create a Greg Brown station. You won’t regret it. Another thing you won’t regret is going to a Dan Smalls Presents show at The Hangar Theater. If you go, look for me, I’ll be there!

Todd Snider at The Haunt ~ Ithaca, N.Y.

Todd Snider at The Haunt  ~ Ithaca, N.Y.  ~ March 11, 2012

Todd Snider has, in his own words, “been drivin’ around the country for the past 15 years, playin’ and singin’ my songs to anyone who would listen.”  It seems that I’ve been wanting to see him play live for over half that long, but he never seemed to play anywhere nearby. So when promoter Dan Smalls booked him at The Haunt in Ithaca, N.Y. I ran to buy tickets like my pants were on fire. Never mind that the gig was on a Sunday night at a bar where I knew I’d be standing in the same spot for almost three hours. While that never used to bother me back in my more free wheeling days, it gave me cause to pause. I like to think I’ve mellowed and “age like wine” like the character from his song by the same name, and I wondered if I’d have the grit and stamina for it. Turns out I did, and then some. The Haunt couldn’t have been a better place to catch Todd Snider as he came through Ithaca with his three piece band on a spring-like Sunday night in early March. I thought back to all of the fabulous shows I had seen at the old Haunt in the alley on Green Street, and this turned out to be every bit as good as any one of those; hands down.

Portland based Ashleigh Flynn opened with a forty minute set that featured many of the songs from her most current release, American Dream. Accompanying herself on acoustic guitar and harmonica, she delivered a fast moving set that was lean and spare in its simplicity, yet lush and rich in content and presence. She writes extraordinary songs about ordinary people who live humble, but authentic lives. It’s Americana songwriting at its best, with stories that have the arc of a novel in a four minute song and leave you feeling like you actually know the characters.  She played a solid set and she’s definitely worth checking out.

I don’t know if Todd Snider has ever had his “smilin’ face on the cover of the Rollin’ Stone”, but he has been steadily gathering a dedicated following of hardcore fans who know he’s the real deal. The folks at The Haunt were no exception. People showed up expecting to see him play; and play, he did. Although his studio albums are collaborations with other musicians, I had the impression that he’s spent a large part of his touring career going solo. Even though I knew he was playing with a band this time out, I guess I expected him to play acoustic guitar and mix it up with periods of the storytelling for which he is so well known and much loved. Not gonna happen, but that’s OK. He launched into his set on electric guitar and didn’t put it down all night. His sound was ragged, snarly and gritty and solidly anchored by an East Nashville rhythm section on bass and drums. Overall, they played like a classic power trio. I expected it to be a high energy show, but I had no idea this guy could rock as hard as he does. Snider and the boys exploded out of the gate with a scorcher and rolled right on through with a blazing, nonstop 90 minute set that worked the crowd into a lather, rocked the house right off its foundation, and left my ears ringing just like the old days.

While he drew heavily from his latest release, Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables, he also played lots of old favorites, including several from his watershed 2004 release, East Nashville Skyline. As good as his songwriting is, he covers other artists’ songs with so much authentic heart and soul you’d swear they are his own. One of those was a gritty version of the Fred Eaglesmith classic, Alcohol and Pills that got everybody in the place singing along. After The Ballad of the Kingsmen from that same album, which is a story within a story that uses the Kingsmen classic as the centerpiece, he launched into a raucous cover of the actual song Louie Louie that sounded like the ultimate garage band on steroids. One of his encore numbers was a boisterous cover of the Chuck Berry classic, School Day, which had us all shouting out the refrain “Hail hail rock and roll” at the top of our lungs and pogo dancing.

Snider’s show was a nonstop thrill ride of songs for everyman. His work is a subversive celebration of the whole catastrophe, from the sublime to the ridiculous; a rebellious and irreverent reflection on modern culture and society. His poignant stories of marginal characters are filled with humane compassion, absurd hilarity, acerbic wit, and wry observations of human nature. To quote him from his own official website (http://www.toddsnider.net/home.cfm) “I want to inspire people,” Snider says. “I want to inspire them to leave home, to do things traditionally considered wrong. If you listen to my record and vandalize your school, godspeed.”

If you get a chance to catch him on this tour, do it. You won’t be sorry. Before the night is over, you’ll be pogo dancing and singing along to every song.

Hail, Hail Rock & Roll!

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