On the morning before Thanksgiving I take one of a dozen seats that line three walls of a waiting room for a routine checkup with my dermatologist.
Four middle-aged patients sit apart from each other along two walls awaiting to be called, and I sit before the third wall, all of us facing the center of the spacious room. All four hold mobile device before them, sometimes pecking away with thumbs as much as fingers. I look around.
Two of the screens cast bright reflections onto the ceiling from seats that are set in front of a wide window. One is a tight, bright circle with a slight tail that makes it look like a comet as it darts erratically back and forth toward the center of the ceiling. The other bears an uncanny resemblance to a jet as seen from the ground just after takeoff.
Though the jet faces away from the comet as if to escape, it slides backward as much as forward and side to side. The two never collide, although I flinched at more than one close call. As well as when the jet jerked from the ceiling onto the wall behind and disappeared into the window.
The comet, for its part, at times moved onto a small stretch of wall beyond the reach of the window, shooting like a sudden bolt of lightning straight down–completely unnoticed by the woman holding the screen that cast it. And no matter that it went right through a small, rectangular device set in the wall labelled “Fire Alarm.”
About then I thought I heard a call for “John,” the name by which all medical and governmental agencies know me, and got up only to hear the assistant enunciate “Dawn.” So I sat back down as the woman with the jet left the room and another woman took the very seat Dawn had vacated.
She had gray hair. She had no device in hand. She looked around, and when our eyes met, we may have smiled at each other as we nodded, though we were wearing masks and I can vouch for only my own. I was tempted to comment on what the dermatologist’s sound system was offering at the time, Nancy Sinatra singing “These Boots Are Made for Walking,” but I was afraid to imply an assumption about her age.
Before I could think of anything else, a young mom entered the office hand in hand with a daughter about eight. As the mom went to the desk, the girl veered into the waiting room, went to look out the window, and kneeled on the chair next to the woman without a phone.
Said the woman to the girl: “I like your shoes.” Said the girl: “Thank you.” Sang Nancy: “That’s just what they’ll do.”
The two then fell into conversation about the characters–cartoon, I think–on the shoes. To which I would have listened in hopes of voicing a remark about Donald Duck, always my favorite, or Goofy, long-time my personal role model. Instead, I heard “John” with an unmistakable J and left the room to have my own comets, jets, and cartoon characters looked at.
Yes, it does occur to me that if I had a device of my own, I could show you pictures of this morning’s indoor air show. Question is, if I had such a device, would I have seen the show at all? And if gray hair had one, would she have noticed the girl’s colorful shoes?
My answers to those questions make me most thankful for what I do not and will never have.
When I planned to attend US Rep. Seth Moulton’s Town Hall in Newburyport tonight, it never occurred to me that the opposition would show up and attempt to turn it into a right-wing rally against him.
But there they were on all four corners of a downtown intersection with their signs for Bob May, Moulton’s Republican opponent on next month’s ballot, an hour before City Hall opened the auditorium doors.
Sometime after I entered, they followed. Even May was there to shout into one of the mics passed around for questioners, so loud that I wondered if the man knows what a mic is–or if he has a severe hearing disability.
His question was why Moulton would not debate him. After stating it, he occasionally repeated it while going on and on listing right-wing talking points about “open borders” (which they are not), “sexualized education” (which it is not), and “critical race theory” in public elementary and high schools (which it never has been).
Had he stopped talking, Moulton could have answered it much sooner than he did: “I will not give a platform to an election denier.”
That may have been the loudest applause of the night, as the Town Hall was effectively scored by dueling applause. At times, there were laughs and giggles at the nonsense that came from May’s supporters, including a woman who quoted Pres. Biden welcoming anyone anywhere to cross our borders.
As Moulton pointed out, no such statement was made. When the woman insisted on it, Moulton dismissed her with the late NY Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s oft-cited: “You are entitled to your own opinions, but you are not entitled to your own facts.”
That drew the second-loudest applause of the night.
The most shocking claims came from a man who condemned Ukraine and President Zelenskyy for genocide against ethnic Russians. Carried away by his own delusion, he claimed that Pope Francis had endorsed Putin’s war.
No one laughed at what he said. In fact, it was dead silence until Mouton answered: “Pope Francis has supported Ukraine.”
Must admit that I couldn’t help but laugh out loud, which set off a chain reaction. For all my years as a teacher (and as a projectionist who often watches a film in the back of a small cinema), that’s embarrassing. Maybe it was involuntary relief after the shock of just having heard a pro-Putin position expressed in Newburyport City Hall.
Near the end, Moulton kept referring to the first question, how can we make politics more civil. The congressman, a veteran of four tours in Iraq, listed instances where he has worked with Republican congressmen on issues such as China’s threat to Taiwan and support for veterans.
He did qualify his quest for bipartisanship with a rhetorical question: “How do you work with Ted Cruz? (Pause.) You don’t.”
That drew the loudest laugh of the night.
But I had stopped laughing. Instead, I was scanning the balcony where every seat was empty. On the floor were barely a hundred moveable seats, a dozen or two remaining empty. Judging from the applause, I’ll guess that May’s alternate-reality crowd was a quarter of those in attendance while the rest were either Moulton supporters or people looking to learn something.
Judging by the volume and sound of voices, you may have thought that the MAGA crowd had us outnumbered.
Before you dismiss this with the old “squeaky wheel” adage, please consider: If those are the numbers in Massachusetts, what must they be in Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania? You know, the usual suspects where new voting restrictions could make them the places where democracy goes to die.
To borrow a phrase that he used when addressing the MAGA crowd at least a dozen times tonight, with all due respect to Rep. Moulton, the solution to the obstruction of congress is not in bipartisanship.
It’s in filling those empty seats and raising more reasonable voices.
Once plays the Firehouse just one more weekend. Wish I had seen it sooner so that my endorsement here could give you more time for an experience that truly is beyond categories of “play” or “musical.”
More than any other theatrical event, including the film on which it was based (a huge hit at the Screening Room 15 years ago), it recalls this line from the introduction to a book published in 2008:
The ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is not a painting. It is an event.
Once at the Firehouse is an event. It begins before the program tells us it starts, and it continues after we leave the hall and make our way toward the stairs or elevators. In this sense, it recalls Renaissance faires–where I will be the next eight weekends*–that begin and end outside the gates before they open and after they close.
Between times at the Firehouse, the acting and music in Once could not be more entertaining or enjoyable. So, too, innovations in sound and lighting and the ingenious positioning and movement of at least a dozen characters and all kinds of musical props.
My reluctance to offer any specifics is only to avoid spoiling any of many surprises. Instead, I’ll just say that this production of Once will be as memorable as the lines of the great Celtic ballad that it evokes:
… a time to rise and a time to fall Come fill to me the parting glass Good night and joy be with you all Good night and joy be with you all
* A strolling piper at King Richard’s, Carver, Mass., weekends, Sept. 3 – Aug. 23, at the gate opening and closing.
When the sound check with the lights still up morphs into the opening act, you know you’re in for something memorable.
Don’t know if Joe LeBlanc does this every month at the Bluebird Invitational Mic Night in Georgetown, Mass., or if he even does it consciously, but it works wonders to put a collection of ten or twelve performers in this new and unique venue at ease. The transition was so detailed–with guitar used as percussion and momentarily put on a loop–that each member of the audience could decide just when the show did, in fact, start.
His test, test, test as soundman was fascinating by itself, enabling him to jokingly hush the audience before strumming and singing Elton John’s “Rocket Man” as I’ve never heard it before, a soulful appeal to attend what comes next.
Making the familiar sound new introduced Bluebird’s co-hosts, Alyce Underhill and Lynne Deschenes, who initiated Bluebird’s monthly offerings in this second floor atop a small firehouse just north of Georgetown center.
All acts are local, and the first–John Hicks on guitar and Madeleine Downs shifting from violin to viola–got Bluebird off to a racy start with sets of Celtic jigs and reels. Hicks introduced one as “where I get to play my favorite instrument” and promptly sat in the audience where he tuned his ears to Downs’ endearing rendition of the traditional, “Down by the Salley Gardens,” named for William Butler Yeats’ love poem.
Composer Dianne Anderson followed on keyboards with “a piece from the Great American Songbook” that had the nostalgic feel of a Great Plains soundscape before playing her own “What to Wear” accompanying singer Anne Grant. The duo then torched Loren Allred’s “Never Enough,” a title that couldn’t be more American or up to date.
Underhill herself delivered a rapturous rendition of “The King of Rome,” a ballad by Dave Sudbury based on a true story about a carrier pigeon sent on an impossible journey that had us so enthralled we awaited the bird’s return through the Georgetown firehouse’s open windows.
Late in the show, Audi and Peter Souza evoked the working maritime days of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia with traditional songs that ranged from jolly-ho chanty to plaintive lamentation. Most moving was Cyril Tawney’s ballad, “The Oggy Man,” about food vendors selling oggies–something of a meat-pie shaped as a turnover–on the docks before the arrival of fast-food chains:
Well the rain’s softly falling and the oggy man’s no more I can’t hear him calling like he used to before As I pass through the gateway, I heard the sergeant say The big boys are coming now, see their stand across the way And the rain’s softly falling and the oggy man’s no more The rain’s softly falling and the oggy man’s no more
Spaced among the musicians, two poets shared the mic, the first, Jac-Lynn Stark who ranged from wistful poems about love and aging to a blithe romp about gardening titled, “My Life as a Zucchini Sex Facilitator.” As one who never tended a garden, I found myself paying attention to the act for the first time in my life, only to wonder how long it will be before I plagiarize the line about sautéing.
Poet Lee Moss mixed an adamant resolution regarding Russia’s war on Ukraine with several ironic takes on everyday life, including his hilarious and equally stunning “Redial,” in which, out of pure curiosity, he dials–or punches in–his deceased Father’s cell-phone number. Whether you are hi-tech or neo-Luddite, you laugh at satire that cuts both ways.
Along with music and the spoken word, Bluebird features musicians playing instruments rarely seen or heard apart from period films. Filling that role were Adrienne Howard on hurdy-gurdy and Emily Peterson on concertina–both taking turns on fiddle. When they were done I tried to recruit them for King Richard’s Faire, but it’s too late for the season that opens Labor Day weekend. Keep your eye on listings of local coffee shops and perhaps an ear out at Beverly Depot where they sometimes perform.
And keep your eye and ear on all the venues for live performance throughout Essex County, from Newburyport to Lynn and from Lawrence to Gloucester. Coffee shops, bars, cafes, churches, schools, train depots, pedestrian malls are where you will find those who perform at The Bluebird Performance Venue in Georgetown.
There was one other act, but I should perhaps recuse myself from reviewing myself. So I tack this on as an optional sequel:
Had I any sense, I’d have begged off until the November show when I’d be fresh off the eight-weekend run of King Richard’s. But it was a great advantage to be scheduled next-to-last, and a patient and kind audience kept laughing at the good natured jokes I was able to poke at most everyone before me as a way to offset the rust.
Most were of the had-to-be-there variety, such as when I hinted at what the last lines of Lee Moss’ “Redial” implied about someone who never has and never will own a cell phone. That may have been the second-loudest laugh. He laughed, everyone laughed–except me.
Since I was asked to talk about my life as a street-performer–40 years ago this month I first played in downtowns Newburyport and Salem–I read a short piece from my book, Pay the Piper!, a street scene that captures both the joy and challenge of busking in America today titled, “Slip-Jig for Flute & SUV.”
I filled the back of the SUV with “zucchini awaiting sautéing.”
Bluebird’s September and October offerings are featured performances, full shows:
Sept. 10, 7pm — Unlaunch’d Voices: An Evening with Walt Whitman, a one-man play written by Michael Z. Keamy and performed by Stephen Collins.
Oct. 8, 7pm — Mark Mandeville & Raianne Richards, an eclectic duo with an eclectic assortment of instruments for songs both serious and humorous.
In November, Bluebird will resume its Invitational Mic.
Today the two doors leading into Newburyport’s busiest supermarket were disgraced by tables nearby with the clipboard petitions of people soliciting signatures.
A man at each repeated those two words as often as he could in a spiel about stopping a law that has to do with the issuance of drivers’ licenses in Massachusetts. The two men stepped toward approaching shoppers as they spoke while a woman seated at each table with more petitions, empty or full, cheered them on.
Those roles may have been reversed from time to time throughout the day for the sake of vocal chords if not feet. They were loud, and two words, repeated no less than every ten seconds, no matter the sense of the sentence, were emphatically loud:
Took me by surprise. Newburyport?
The place wasn’t all that busy, and I was grateful that the few folks I saw go past them paid no attention. Me? Couldn’t resist:
“What would Jesus do?”
At first they didn’t know what to make of it, but when I kept walking with no move to sign, they must have realized that they had just “owned a lib” or “pissed off a libtard” or whatever their low-life expression is of late. And so they shared a laugh behind me.
On the way out, I was tempted to ask where they would be the next morning, a Sunday morning. Will they be at the doors of Catholic and Protestant churches filling the air before and after worship with “illegal aliens”? Are they so stupid that they’d take this crap to a synagogue? Would the contradiction even register on them? Or is there a separation of the Sermon on the Mount from their Sermon at the Mart?
No, I did not waste the time. And I left through the other door where the other couple was engaged with shoppers. One was signing. I looked over at the first table. A few shoppers there as well, one signing. A lot of talk, all of it punctuated by two words that rang aloud at both tables:
Couldn’t help but note that everyone at both tables, shoppers and petitioners, was of Caucasian decent, as am I. Chances are that they all have grandparents or great-grandparents or ancestors further back, who arrived in America as immigrants, as did mine. By the definitions of their own slurs, their own ancestors were “aliens,” nor were they legally here until they had been processed through customs–a process that most everyone they call “illegal” has either been through or is going through.
But doesn’t “illegal aliens” sound so much more menacing than “undocumented immigrants awaiting naturalization”?
The sight of shoppers, mostly middle-aged, some elderly, signing those hate-sheets was demoralizing. No telling how many are well-intentioned folk fooled by the slur or how many are racists grateful for yet another excuse to express it without admitting it. Surely, none of them realize the implied denunciation of their own ancestors.
Don’t know what their deadline is to submit signatures, or if I’ll see them and hear their slurs again. But, if so, I will sign. They want a name? Oh, I’ll give them a name! Not going to give it away right now, but my initials will be IA.
Somewhere in New Hampshire a friend wrenched his shoulder while unloading a truck. As men do, he tried to ignore the discomfort, believing it would go away.
Instead, it turned to pain. Before long, he didn’t think he could drive a car and had to ask his wife for a ride to the hospital.
Listening to this, not wanting to slow the story or inhibit the telling, I took no notes, but based on where I know they live, they went to either Portsmouth or Exeter. Whichever it was, as soon as they walked in, they saw a crowd and walked back out.
Somewhere else in Rockingham County they found one of those medical chains that have appeared everywhere in recent years. This one was Convenient MD, where they received a very nice, soothing welcome from a friendly receptionist, filled out some forms, including billing information of course, and were soon introduced to a nurse.
The nurse worked her fingers around my friend’s shoulder only to admit that there was nothing she could determine for certain without a x-ray, and that the staff’s radiologist had already gone home for the day. She referred them to a nearby medical center.
Third time’s a charm, and not long after they arrived at the center, my friend had some treatment, some pain-killers, and a sling he wore for barely a week.
All’s well that end’s well as whatshisname put it–except that the story doesn’t end there.
One month later, my friend received a bill for $15 from Convenient MD. Well, alright, the nurse did spend some time with him and gave the referral. And it is a pittance. He did raise his eyebrows at the amount, there on his bill, that Convenient MD charged Medicare–just over $200 as I recall–but, hey, if this is what America wants as a healthcare system, ain’t nothin’ we can do about it.
Except the story doesn’t end there either.
Weeks later, Convenient MD sent him another bill, this time for over $160, and the charge to Medicare was proportionally higher. My friend was soon on the phone.
After calls to both Medicare and Convenient MD, not only was he able to rip up the bill in front of him, he was told he’d be reimbursed for the bill he already paid. When he told them that he’d “have no choice but to contact Medicare” (even though he already had), he was assured that it, too, would be “fully reimbursed.” Days later, a $15 check arrived in the mail.
“Hush money!” I yelled.
“Yes!” he laughed.
“And it was your own $15!”
He laughed again, but he wasn’t hushed. He made a second call to Medicare to report what happened, giving them all they need to pursue reimbursement if Convenient MD reneged on what they told him. Put another way: The ball is in Medicare’s court.
We can only wonder about how widespread this is. In our privatized healthcare system, the elderly on Medicare must appear as low hanging fruit. They (we) are less prone to question bureaucratic details, as when my friend simply paid the first bill–even though he noticed the $200 charge to Medicare for a thirty-second shoulder massage.
The second bill was either a mistake, such as confusing him with another patient that day, or Convenient MD, for whatever reason (or haywire algorithm), thought it could bilk him for more–and in the process, Medicare for a lot more.
It’s an old trick, and on the internet it’s called phishing. Nor is it confined to the private sector.
Back in the ’90s, the city of Boston put cameras over busy intersections to photograph plates of cars at the end of those lines that cross as the light turns from yellow to red. Tickets would be sent out automatically.
This was already ruled illegal by courts across the country, but the higher-ups knew that most people would pay the fine rather than take a Tuesday afternoon off work to find their way into a downtown courtroom to contest the ticket.
Those who did show up in court had the ticket repealed. Every. Single. One.
If enough of us keep an eye on the bills we receive and are willing to drop a dime and raise a voice, Medicare’s court should work just as well.
While sitting on Plum Island overlooking the marsh reading Melville’s early novels, it’s easy to imagine I’m on a lush tour of the South Pacific.
A headset offering “virtual reality”? I would prefer not to.
In semi-retirement and with an insistent preference for hardcover, I’d go broke buying Typee, Omoo, Mardi, Redburn, and White Jacket—not to mention tired and blind trying to find them in bookstores.
Among many other things—civic archives and events, children’s reading programs, on-line resources and the computers to access them, not to mention technical assistance for all of the above—this is what libraries are for.
So, off to the Newburyport Public Library I went searching for Omoo (Tahitian for “rover”). Not there. The Modern Library of America’s four Melville compilations I had borrowed in the past? All gone. In fact, all I found was a single copy of Moby-Dick.
The on-line catalogue for the Merrimack Valley Library Consortium listed just one Omoo, and so I had it sent from Methuen. Next day, I spotted a friend from out-of-town who works at a library upriver photographing City Hall’s Juneteenth celebration and inquired.
He told me it’s called “weeding.” With so much on-line, many books never circulate. And then there’s MVLC.
“So, one Omoo is enough for over 30 city and town libraries?” I asked. He shrugged, I shrugged, and the mayor began to speak. That night, I sent him a message asking if weeding was a secret.
Here’s something that is not a secret: Public libraries are as high as public education, public transportation, public everything on the Republican Party’s hit list. Are librarians now doing their dirty work for them?
While mulling that over, I received this:
It’s no secret. All libraries weed. If a book doesn’t circulate over a period of time, it’s removed. If the book is worn, meaning well read, we purchase another copy, if still in print.
Some are replaced by new trendy volumes on the same subject. You may not be able to get contemporary accounts of historical events, he cracked, but you can always get some name-the time-or-place History for Dummies.
If another MVLC library has the same title, removal is to avoid duplication, unless it’s a hot title:
“You can see it for yourself. Just walk through the literature and poetry sections.”
I did. As he says, “pretty anemic.” The Reference section looks empty. A bookcase on the 3rd floor with coffee table books—atlases, photography, fashion, art, etc.—is now gone, “so too the oversized books because they didn’t circulate.”
His voice rose in print:
Of course not! Too big to take home. But I witnessed many patrons read/browse/enjoy them in our library. Most people can’t afford to buy those books. The library can.
I saw many parents with children looking at atlases and photography books together and teens sharing books. We’re weeding not just books, we’re weeding people.
Given the overall demise of print, I asked, shouldn’t public libraries be increasingly vigilant safeguarding books?
“Ha! A story from your own library circulated throughout MVLC that a patron wanted a second look at the two volumes of The Life and Letters of John Greenleaf Whittier. Perhaps that patron delighted to think someone else had them, but when unable to place a hold, he inquired.
No matter that Whittier has deep Newburyport connections and that the books, published by a relative in 1894, contain his letters, always of deep local, historical value.
How are empty spaces on shelves better than those books? Than any books? This is not the product of careful thought, but of “policy and procedure,” the very antithesis of thought that turns thinking people into badly programmed robots. At a library no less.
Oh, the irony! Just 21 years ago NPL expanded to the tune of $6.8 million for what? More books, they said back then. Maybe they think Washington, Jefferson, Lafayette, and John Quincy Adams are coming back through their door and they need bunk beds.
From my first inquiry, my librarian friend and I kept using a phrase: “with so much on-line.” Yet more irony! This dialogue began at a celebration of an American historical event as overlooked—perhaps as weeded—as Omoo all these years.
What’s on-line? I would prefer we start thinking of what’s on the line.
Among the many peripheral, random events held all over Newburyport during Yankee Homecoming is the block party on Dove Street before and through the fireworks.
Dove is a short, narrow, one-way affair that lands on Merrimac St. across from Leary’s parking lot, so it’s easy for the city to grant a permit to shut it down for a few evening hours. Yesterday’s gathering was the 13th or 14th annual depending on how you figure the shutdown of COVID-20.
For me it was the first. Not just at Dove but anywhere, not just this year, but in my life. And I went under the assumption that any band at a block party would be aspiring high-schoolers playing standard hits note for every familiar note.
Turns out Astral Lemon is a Boston-based group that has been together a few years. Vocalist and front man Stylianos Psarogiannis–who also plays guitar, keyboard, or something that looks like a flugelhorn–not long ago was a student at the Berklee School of Music. He has stayed in touch with his history teacher, a resident of Dove Street who plans and supports the annual event, long enough to land this gig.
The day was so hot that I pretty much inhaled a 12-oz. ale as soon as I sat down, but that had nothing to do with the sensation that Astral Lemon creates as soon as they take up their instruments and start playing.
A couple about my age felt it as well, and we went back and forth identifying the influences we were hearing. I offered the Mothers of Invention, King Crimson, and Blind Faith. They suggested Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, and Pink Floyd, the last of which comes closest to a set list that includes two tracks each from The Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here.
Wish all my college friends were there to hear it with me.
All songs followed the otherworldly soundscape of some 15 minutes of three soaring guitars, rapid fire drums, and high energy keyboard. All of it had me back in 1968 before Astral Lemon was introduced and “opened” with “I Shot the Sheriff.”
Somehow I had forgotten that it was written by Bob Marley, but Astral Lemon reveled in the reggae glossed over by Eric Clapton. That may seem incongruous, but it was just right as a transition from the raw power of their warm up into the reassuring comradery of the vocals. More than that, it was the first of many offerings featuring mesmerizing guitar work that ranged from Dire Straits’ dazzling “Sultans of Swing” to the Doors’ deep and probing “Love Me Two Times” and “Riders on the Storm.”
Speaking of deep and probing, you might wonder if they play one Beatles’ song so that Psarogiannis can pause and look at lead guitarist Dinos Alvanos after the line, “He’s got hair. Down. To his knees.” But “Come Together” features bassist Filipo Goller who would do Paul McCartney proud with both his steady formidable support and his occasional playful leads.
Rhythm guitarist Oliver Ordish adds exquisite echoes of lines note for contrapunctal note in addition to joining some of Alvanos’ powerhouse leads and enhancing drummer Eduardo Hoyos’ feverish pace on the songs that call for it. No matter the pace or the intensity, Astral Lemon plays every instrument with precision that lets you hear every note.
Watch Hoyos and you can see him going through gears, zero-to-sixty in no time. On slower songs such as Floyd’s “Shine on You Crazy Diamond,” he excels with syncopation, for which his four bandmates are noticeably grateful.
Starting just after 7:00, the band took a break after playing “Jailhouse Rock”–a nice pun, intended or not–just in time for us to move to the bottom of Dove and watch the fireworks over the gray house adjacent Leary’s parking lot. Later I would learn that one resident takes neighborhood dogs “for a long car ride until the fireworks end.”
Following the fireworks, Astral Lemon’s second set was just three songs. Was the pun intentional as they played Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way” while spectators filed past them on their way back up Dove? Pink Floyd’s “Have a Cigar” would have been just as much of a pun in the years before everyone quit smoking.
The set was short only because the hour was late. Ordinarily, I’d concede that fireworks are an impossible act to follow, but on Dove Street, once every year, they are part of the show.
As I left the block party, I heard faint music coming from the tent under which Astral Lemon was packing up. Sounded vaguely familiar, as it had a flute, so I stopped. Yes, it was Jethro Tull playing “Locomotive Breath.” Already having thanked them for giving me a night back in 1968, especially with their opening soundscapes, I had to let them know: “I’ve been to at least 35 Tull concerts in the past fifty years.” Immediately, they all wanted to know if I heard Tull’s Thick as a Brick tour. “Twice,” I said, and they were in awe. Dawned on me that I could have been talking to five grandsons, but that’s another story. While driving home, something else dawned on me: Brick was one of the first rock-and-roll albums–The Who’s Tommy another–to feature soundscapes.
And a personal note:
The gray house aside Leary’s parking lot was where my “Aunt Alice” lived. Not sure of the exact relationship, but I’m fairly sure her last name, married or not, was “Creeden,” likely a cousin to my paternal grandmother–Mary Elizabeth Creeden before she became Mrs. Garvey–born and raised in Newburyport. I recall that Alice was quite old when I was brought to visit during my early grade-school years in Lawrence. I’m still sorry for the bottle of water I knocked over on her dining room table.
Ever notice how various styles of music fit the three requests of the “Serenity Prayer”?
Yes, there are far more than three genres of music, many of them overlapping, but just as three primary colors give us a complete spectrum, so too music:
Classical offers the serenity to rise above a gotta go-go world; rock and roll the courage to confront it; folk the wisdom to understand it.
Such was my thinking after hearing Roger Ebacher’s jazz quartet, Re:Groove, on a night I was determined to put all the concerns of my go-go if not already gone-gone world out of mind. No matter that I left jazz out of those prayed-for qualities, Re:Groove bestows all three while taking you into a relaxed and relaxing world of its own.
This is Latin jazz, Brazilian and Cuban, samba and bossa nova, cha-cha-cha, and it’s easy to forget that you are sitting in a brewpub in downtown Haverhill and imagine yourself instead on a Caribbean beach. It’s just as easy to filter out the din from the bar in the next room while four musicians turn their featured passages into stories that captivate from their opening chords to the notes that return to the full combo.
All of them have a few, complementing Ebacher’s signature melody flute on the lead of most tunes, all of them articulated so fluidly and clearly that Herbie Hancock would be proud to have his name on “Herbally,” Ebacher’s tribute to him.
Michael Shea’s keyboard sizzles on “Down to My Very Last Dream,” a composition by legendary Newburyporter Charles Bechler and his sometime collaborator Ed White. Lionel Girardeau’s bass swaggers through Ebacher’s enigmatic “Three in the Afternoon.” And percussionist Michael Wingfield dances all ten fingers in a mesmerizing solo over four congas–at one point bouncing a closed fist for comic relief–in a joyous piece Ebacher titled “Zola.”
Let me disclose here that I’ve known Ebacher since the 1980s when our daughters were both in a children’s play produced by Newburyport’s Theater in the Open. I’ve heard him in jam sessions and I’ve heard his recordings, but apparently not enough to know that he’s a vocalist as well as a flautist and percussionist.
The songs he sings are his own, and are just right for his across-the-cabana voice. “What the World Is Coming To” hints at topical subjects:
Faster and faster
Seems like we’re losing control
Life is a game, but nobody’s winning
Better hold on to your soul
That one and a sky-kissing, yet still determined “This Time Around” are just enough to remind us that this is a night off from any woes of the world as Ebacher reassures us in his most charming “Coffee and a Kiss”:
There’s nothing better
I can tell you this
And if you leave me
That’s what I’ll miss
Your coffee and your kiss
Charming becomes disarming when the band takes it up an octave leading into “Welcome Home,” a vibrant melody that Ebacher composed in a rhythm of Mozambique to highlight the chops of both Shea and Girardeau.
Re:Groove plays all tempos, effortlessly kept and shifted by Wingfield’s congas occasionally abetted by a pair of bongos and various shakers Ebacher keeps in front of himself. Among the more sentimental tunes is “Missing Rio” which he imagined on a flight out of “The Marvelous City.” Though Latin, an unmistakable feel of departure turned back my own musical clock to missing Denver even if I was well more than a mile high.
Yes, I heard them in The Tap in Haverhill, which hosts jazz every Sunday night, 6:00 to 9:00, and Re:Groove will be back likely in October. But this is a Newburyport-based band formed by Ebacher, a Port native–as is Wingfield–with a keen regard for this city’s musical history.
In addition to Bechler’s “Very Last Dream,” we also hear “Plum Island,” a samba composed by another local legend, world-renowned saxophonist Charlie Mariano. Bechler and Mariano who, in Ebacher’s words:
… were band mates in the seminal psych/jazz/rock group Osmosis, who opened for Miles Davis, Frank Zappa, and the Grateful Dead in the early 70s, just a few years before my tenure in the Charles Bechler Group.
To complete the tribute, Ebacher plays “Plum Island” on a Casio DH -100 digital horn, which I’d rather call a melody sax in keeping with the melody flute.
But then, why fit labels and categories when the music offers every color and answers every prayer whether you asked or not?
If you told me any time in the last 40 years that you heard a band play the Rolling Stones’ “19th Nervous Breakdown,” I’d have figured you were drunk when you thought you heard it.
But I heard it live in the beer garden of Newburyport Brewery last weekend, and I was still sipping my first pint of Overboard IPA.
Oh, the nostalgia in that so unusual song! Something of a litmus test for those of us who were teenagers when it shocked the airwaves. Who dared dance to drug abuse?
Nor did it help that the song remained number two on the charts while at the top each of those weeks was “The Ballad of the Green Beret.” How’s that for polarization?
But all of that happened when the five members of Pathological Outliars were still cluck-clucking and moo-mooing “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.”
Perhaps their relative youth combined with their multi-generational tastes makes them the ideal outdoor hot-weather band. Their repertoire spans decades from “Slow Down,” a 1957 R&R classic later popularized by the Beatles, to “Molly’s Chambers,” a Kings of Leon hit in 2003–and genres from Booker T & the MGs’ suave “Green Onions” to the Ramones’ punk-raucous “I Want to Be Sedated.”
Sunny Douglas and Ed Cameron alternate vocal leads, both pitch perfect for their individual selections. Cameron may not be able to find matching socks, but he harmonizes well with Douglas whether they are belting out Bowie’s defiant “Suffragette” or lifting the weight of the Kinks’ “Tired of Waiting.”
Craig Douglas’ drumming accelerates and decelerates the Outliars like a fine-tuned transmission through songs that demand both. Peter Larsen’s bass is distinct, exact, and bold, keeping the group on the roads the songs chart.
The steadiness of those two allow lead guitarist Eric Gootkind to pick and fret magic. From the flaming intro of Loretta Lynne’s “Portland Oregon” to the iconic drive of Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” all the way to the Beatles’ “Ticket to Ride,” Gootkind can drive rock-and-roll’s car.
Back when I danced to “19th Nervous Breakdown”–and not quite that far back when I danced at all–my favorite rock songs were always the ones where the steadiest rhythms make possible the wildest leads, and where confident vocals launch energetic instrumentals that return to the lyrics seamlessly.
Much of the Pathological Outliars’ set list fits that description. And it goes quite well with Overboard IPA.
Look for them again at Newburyport Brewery and, in mid-September, at Plumfest over here on The Island.