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Music from South of the Border: Massachusetts Rock

By Benson Knickerbocker

Massachusetts is a lot more than home to crazy drivers. There are also plenty of great musicians. Looking beyond Aerosmith, Boston, J Geils Band, Letters to Cleo, Pat Metheny, Til Tuesday, Buffalo Tom and Susan Tedeschi, there is many a good musical vibe to discover. Here are a few selections from our friends beyond Brattleboro.

Uncle Sammy/Live – Broadway Joe’s

Uncle Sammy is a Boston based quartet consisting of Thomas Arey (drums), Max Delaney (guitar), Beau Sasser (keyboards) and Brian O’Connell (bass, vocals). Like so many of the music that is coming from the greater Boston area, let it be folk, jazz or rock & roll, Uncle Sammy finds it routes in the Berklee College of Music. Although having the words "Berklee" in your press kit doesn’t guarantee success to a musician, it does guarantee quality music to the listener. In the course of an Uncle Sammy performance, one can hear versions of Steely Dan’s "Bodhisattva", Miles Davis "All Blues" and Medeski, Martin and Wood’s "Think". But things really get interesting when you hear their originals. Live-Broadway Joe’s was recorded during the spring of 1999 at a club in Buffalo, New York. The album’s four cuts cover every ground imaginable – from 3+ minute "Recycle Now", which is quick and tightly composed fusion workout with a social message, to the 23 + minute "M.A.G" which stands for Max's Anticipatory Groove. The song once had humble beginnings as a simple riff but as the band developed so did the song. Now, with the addition of vocals, it is an epic journey through jazz, funk, fusion and progressive music styles. The other tunes are the set opening "Lady Bug" and the funky vocal piece, "Ricky Rabbit". This album was a look at the band during the first half of 1999. In over a year’s time, the quartet has grown through experience and osmosis. Their busy live circuit has tightened the band’s ranks and created an impressive repertoire of songs and jams. I would keep an eye out for their next release but until then, these four tunes and their live shows will more than suffice. http://www.unclesammy.com.


The Jon Jarvis Trio / Hear No Evil (TVT Records, 2000)

Recorded at Regis College in Weston, Massachusetts during the fall of 1998, Hear No Evil is this trio’s first recording since their 1997 collaboration with violinist Stephane Grappelli, Never Ever Land. Jon Jarvis armed solely with a Yamaha Concert Grand Piano and is accompanied with the sonically explorative and rhythmically adventurous fretwork of Anthony Weller, another Massachusetts native, and the steady bass work of Bob Nieske who plays an old Mexican bass that was built sometime around 1900. Jarvis, a native of Duxbury, Massachusetts, is not afraid to give himself an eclectic labeling. During the performance his fingers can take a tune from the anarchy of Cecil Taylor to the New Orleans barrelhouse of Fats Waller; from the introspection of Thelonius Monk to the talented percussive styling of McCoy Tyner. At times, he plays like a trained classical pianist and at other times, he sounds like he is leading a sing along down at the pub. Add Nieske and Weller’s talent, this concert was an evening fine music that left no jazz/blues/classical style untouched.


Melissa Ferrick/Freedom (What Are Records, 2000)

To date, Melissa Ferrick has amassed an interesting career. The Ipswich, Massachusetts native attended both the New England Conservatory of Music and Berklee College of music to study trumpet and bass respectively. With this background, one would expect a musical life of classical or jazz. Au contraire. Ferrick gave up her formal studies and honed down her musical approach – nothing but her beautiful raspy voice, some heartbreak to sing about and an acoustic guitar. Since the transition to folk orientated music, Ferrick enjoyed a successful tour opening for Morissey (at age 20), released two albums on Atlantic Records and played the 1998 Lilith Fair. But nothing is perfect, for Atlantic Records dropped Ferrick. In no way did this waver her pursuit to write beautiful songs. This is relentless pursuit to create music is shown on her What Are Records release, Freedom. The album represents Ferrick’s freedom major labels, her freedom from cumbersome and excessive instrumentation and her freedom to sing what she chooses. In an interview with Pamela Berry of the Boston Phoenix, Ferrick commented on Freedom, "This is by far my best work to date…..There's no one to blame but me if it doesn't do well." A cursory glance of these words would suggest overconfidence, but after a listening to the album, the statement simply reflects her belief in her self.


Sympatico (Atwood Media, 1999)

Sympatico is a jazz quartet based out of the Boston area consisting of guitarist Steve Thomas, keyboardist Bob Ponte, bassist Maggie Rizzi and drummer Stanley Swan. As their name suggests, Sympatico is band that is incomplete synchronization. Drawing on influences as diverse as the guitar playing of Joe Pass and Barney Kessel and the Latin grooves of Antonio Carlos Jobim, Sympatico creates a fusion of Latin, jazz, blues and contemporary music that is reminiscent of Pat Metheny, the Yellow Jackets or Spyro Gyra. Each player and their respective instrument is an essential component to the overall song and when you listen to this debut CD, you can hear the inherent communication that exists between the players. This album contains eight originals that have been in the Sympatico repertoire for fifteen years. The songs range from the standard blues of "JB Blues" to the funk of "No Rage" to the waltz of "Life’s Dance." The quartet masterfully works through different time signatures and tempos and blends every style in the book. Email Sympatico at symjazz@aol.com. for more information on the tight electric jazz band.


Star Ghost Dog/The Great Indoors (Catapult Records, 2000)

Star Ghost Dog was formed in Northampton, Massachusetts by guitarist/ songwriters Ginny Weaver and Brendan Lynch in 1995. With in a year’s time, the two were relocated in Boston with a six-song demo tape and looking for musicians to fill out their sound. By the time 1997 came around, veteran drummer Chris Foley, who played with Jen Trynin’s band, and bassist Owen Burkett supplemented Star Ghost Dog. As a follow up to the success of 1997’s Happy Love, the band recorded The Great Indoors. With their soaring sonic pop songs Star Ghost Dog has built an incredible local base

and won the 1st runner up spot for Best Local New Act in the Boston Phoenix Music Poll, and were nominated for this year's Boston Music Awards as Best New Rock Band. Through both their live shows and The Great Indoors, the quartet plays pop savvy songs with evocative lyrics – at moments the evoke darkness and other moments, they evoke brightness. Either way, it is their panache for writing a fluid and melodic ear catching pop song that is most evident. The Great Indoors is a great release that just make Star Ghost Dog more than a regional act. www.starghostdog.com



Miracle Orchestra/ Live Volume One (www.miracleorchestra.com)

The last time the Vermont Review visited the Miracle Orchestra, they were seven-piece band that revisited the Bitches Brew era of Miles Davis. A year later, the band has tightened its ranks to a very tight quartet and retained its musical vision of creating complex jazz jams. These guys absolutely belong in the netherworld between jam band rock and roll and free jazz. Unlike other musical contemporaries, who fuse rock and roll and jazz, but stick to the rock and roll side of the equation, Miracle Orchestra successfully creates a groove that is truly fusion. "Ella Vader" features each quartet member pursuing different grooves that are layered on top of each other for one intense tune. The combination of Jared Sims saxophone and Geoff Scott’s guitar form a piercing Middle Eastern effect that sounds like John Coltrane and John McLaughlin got together for a jam session. Meanwhile, the tandem of drummer Bill Carbone and bassist Garret Sayers drive the song through different tempos and moods, which keeps the opening song (and every song thereafter) exciting and unpredictable. "Eurohaus Destroyer" is the closest that the band come to the aforementioned "Bitches Brew" as the band takes the tune from fast paced rhythm and blues solos to free jazz breakdowns and back to a frenzy jam. When I first saw Miracle Orchestra, the skills of Carbone, Sayers and Scott were more than evident. Carbone and Sayers’ communication are superb while Scott’s sense of texture is unbelievable. As for Jared Sims, his saxophone playing skill was hiding amongst two other equally talented brass players. This live recording really brings out the qualities of Sims’ playing - he is melodic, he is cacophonic, he provides texture- he is damn good. The Miracle Orchestra posses a remarkably original sound that is appealing to both friends of jazz and rock and roll groove seekers .


Zyrah’s Orange/ Mind (Sachimay Records, 1999)

Maybe it was the fact the opening song, "Spirits", logged in at four minutes and twenty songs. Maybe it was the fact that the album’s fourth song was titled "8 Words (you shouldn’t think about stoned)". Maybe it was the fact that those 8 words were deeply reflective terms like Wisdom, Progress, Humor, Progress, Dreams, Reason, Love and Pride. Maybe it was the progressive-psychedelic jam accompanied those eight words. Maybe it was the band’s outward fascination with numerology – five out of the first six songs make references to the numbers. Maybe it was the fact that the band just recruited Don Gullotti from the highly respected progressive band Phineas Gauge. Maybe it was the humor in the lyrics – "Now you’re sugarfree/once you were so sweet to me/Now you’re sugarfee/and you taste like nutrasweet". Maybe it was the band’s ability to move from rhythmic space instrumentals to nitty gritty blues. I don’t know what it was, but I do know when I gave the disc an initial look over and then gave it a subsequent listen; I knew I was going to like it. As always, never doubt your instincts and intuition. Zyrah’s Orange is a power-rocking trio from the Boston area and Mind is their debut 57-minute release. With every hint that the band revealed about their music abilities, they subsequently delivered. The disc has moments of progressive ("8 Words"), Beatles pyschedelia ("Take it Back"), blues ("Urban Blues"), Latin-rock ("Fingers"), trance-space groove ("Sugar Free") and folk ("Boxcar Pose"). Thrown into the mix with all of these tunes is also a bit of heavy King Crimson or Iron Butterfly, McLaughlin inspired fusion and Dinosaur Jr. hard rock. The amazing thing about the album is its flow. Somehow Mind comes together as one flowing suite. As aforementioned the first six songs have a numerological theme while the final three songs "Boxcar Pose", "Sugar Free" and "Heavy Head" cover a wide range of musical styles, they possess a linking tale. Even after reading through the liner notes and giving the album multiple listens, I overlooked the most blatant hint provided by the band – the album’s title. Zyrah’s Orange messes with the mind in every way possible. If it isn’t the wide range styles, it is the lyrical content. If it isn’t the subliminal themes, it’s the pounding suppression of the jams. If the jams aren’t pounding, they are taking you away. All there is left to say is that this album should be sought out. http://www.zyrahsorange.com


The Sheila Divine/New Parade (Road Runner Records, 1999)

Boston’s Sheila Divine is another Boston area trio that has the same end as Zyrah’s Orange, but much different means. The bespectacled trio, consisting of Aaron Perrino (guitar, vocals), Jim Gilbert(bass, vocals) and Shawn Sears (drums, vocals), put all of the heart and energy into writing and playing emotional vibrant and musically powerful songs. Instead of jam band/progressive rock’s ethereal or introspective approach to lyricism, the Sheila Divine deal with real life issues/emotions while the instruments pound the message straightforward with no nonsense jamming. The opening "Automatic Buffalo" switches to droning acoustic balladeering to hard driving chords that sounds like a mixture of Uncle Tupelo at their hardest moments, Echo and the Bunnymen and a bit of Radiohead. Throughout this album, the Sheila Divine sing of the today’s thirty something triumvirate of angst: age, love and capitalism. On "Like a Criminal", the three sing "They’re grown men who play like children; and they know that they are way to old; that belief is fair if you make money; that belief is fair if you still funny." For "Awful Age", the theme continues with " You could have it all; but I can’t have it too; now I am the age; where no one pulls for you." The same song ends on a sad note with " I’m at an awful age; we don’t stand a chance; it’s the death of true romance; when a glance is just a glance; we don’t stand a chance." The Sheila Divine is a great example of power pop in the 21st century and prove that all a band needs is three people to create sonically appealing music. http://www.thesheiladivine.com/

Other bands to keep an eye out for? The Shods, the Gravel Pit, the Rockett Band Tugboat Annie, Jiggle the Handle and Entrain. Although these musicians/bands call Massachusetts their home, they make frequent journeys up and down the state of Vermont. Keep an eye out for them.

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