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To Hades and back: A late season preview of Vermont’s music scene

By Alan Lewis | Special to the Vermont Guardian

posted October 13, 2006

Vermont’s autumn music season, looking solid from the start, has been spiced by recent show announcements and late bookings.

If you see a show being played by noted Vermont singer-songwriter Anais Mitchel, catch her while you can: She could be busy for a while. Lately, Mitchell, a recipient of a Vermont Community Foundation grant, has written Hadestown: A Folk Opera.

Hadestown is based on the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, but its setting may look more like the United States during the Great Depression. Some may recall The King, a novella by Donald Barthelme, which similarly set the King Arthur romances among the events of World War II. Mitchell has developed Hadestown with Michael Chorney and his current band, Magic City. She has, in several ways, placed herself in intriguing company, and Hadestown should open to a packed house.

Hadestown will premiere with shows, at Montpelier- and Burlington-area locations to be announced, Dec. 8 and 9, and will be staged at the Vergennes Opera House on Dec. 15 and 16.

Jazz greats Chick Corea and Gary Burton come to Johnson State College’s Dibden Center on Oct. 21. Roy Book Binder, a 70s cat who was part of the best blues show this writer ever witnessed, is at Hinesburg’s Good Times Café on Nov. 15. Widely loved country singer George Jones, with special guest Robert Hawkins, appears at Burlington’s Flynn MainStage on Nov. 17.

Windham County, normally a Vermont-scene powerhouse, has slowed a little. The big event was the closing of The Windham in Bellows Falls. The recent fire at Oona’s Restaurant, the one-time home of Flying Under Radar’s highly successful concert series, added an exclamation mark to the loss. A new series of shows, soon to start at Brattleboro’s The Church, can only help. Meanwhile, Brattleboro’s Sanctuary Hooker-Dunham Theatre is the engine that is keeping live music alive.

There are bigger names than John Coster in the singer-songwriter field, but there is no greater talent. Coster recorded his debut album with his old band, Jacob’s Reunion, at West Brattleboro’s Chelsea House in 1975. Bill Gehman, who masterfully engineered the original taping, carefully burned the LP, complete with slight hints of vinyl surface noise, and reissued the album on a must-have CD. At the record’s heart is an extended reimagining of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” which must be heard to be believed. And the brilliant “Solid Night” stands with the finest recordings of the decade. Jacob’s Reunion (JR), a treasure of a debut, though popular, should have reached many more ears than it did.

Coster’s new act, a duo with fiddler Katherine First, comes to Hooker-Dunham on Oct. 21. First may be best known to southern Vermonters from her days with the Springfield (MA) Symphony Orchestra or perhaps from leading weekly Celtic music sessions in Northampton.

“Katherine and I have been working together for a bit over a year,” explained Coster. “Sometimes she works with me as part of a larger band format with full rhythm section and electric guitar, but it’ll be fun to play the Hooker in this configuration. The songs don’t get lost and we can still rip out some hard driving tunes.

“The sound of the harp and violin together is something new,” continued Coster referring to his harmonica playing. “We did a little in the JR days, but now I really know how to play whole pieces of music, jigs, and reels, etc., something I couldn’t do then.”

Coster’s latest CD, The World Has Changed, is a gem. While it was being made, his fellow singer and ex-Brattleborian Susannah Keith e-mailed to say that Coster was recording his masterpiece. The disc features a longer jammed-up reworking of his excellent “Old Stones, Broken Bones” that early fans will crave. The new “Rodeo” squeezes a grand cinematic scale into a few minutes and, musically, crosses Canadian great Ian Tyson with late-60s Bob Dylan. It is folk-rock at its best.

Coster and First at Hooker-Dunham is a distinguished booking and earns this writer’s highest recommendation.

Folk-circuit star Ellis Paul is tickled by his forthcoming career-retrospective CD. And he may use it later to step up his own pursuits. But in recent months, he has been quite selfless in his efforts to promote ex-Windham County resident Antje Duvekot, whose Big Dream Boulevard has turned many heads among critics and fans alike. Paul’s record producer, Flynn — late of Boston’s popular Celtic-rock band Cliffs of Dooneen — opens for him at the Valley Players Theater in Waitsfield, on Nov. 18. Duvekot splits a bill with Paul at Bradford’s fabled Middle Earth Music Hall on Dec. 8.

Well-known Vermont rock band 8084 should work up a sweat at South Burlington’s Higher Ground on Nov. 18.

Retro-folkies and humorists Rebecca Hall and Ken Anderson, who normally motor in their “Blue Meanie” camper van, are close to home at the Windham Hill Inn in West Townsend on Nov. 23.

Spirits must be high for the Vermont Symphony Orchestra over the Masterworks production at the Flynn MainStage on Dec. 2, Anthony Princiotti conducting. The Noon Witch by Dvorak is likely to sparkle, as should other works on the program including Hommage a Mozart by Ibert, Bizet’s Symphony in C, and Mathis der Maler by Hindemith.

Patti Casey is high on the Ripton Community Coffeehouse, where she entertains on Dec. 2. “The sound is great there, the reception is warm, they feed the performers real food at someone’s house, throw a party afterwards, and generally make it just about the nicest gig around,” she said. “I love those guys.” Casey has played the Ripton with the band North Union, with her old trio Redwing, and in a fundraiser.

Casey has gotten good radio support for her latest album, The Edge of Grace, and not surprisingly it has sold well at Bluegrass Gospel Project (BGP) concerts and solo appearances, as well as through online physical product sales and digital distribution.

Casey’s Just an Old Sweet Song, a collection of 1920s and 30s jazz and swing standards, has done particularly well in digital sales. “I think people go to iTunes and query ‘Ain’t Misbehavin’’ or one of the other standards I recorded, and then they get to choose from several versions, one of which is mine, so I think I’m benefiting there from the songs being famous and still-requested.”

Casey sings solo and in group vocals with the BGP — “my now-nearly fulltime band!” “We’ve had some terrific gigs,” she said of the fall schedule, “and all the more so because we have a bit of a mission with this tour. We are working hard to raise money for homeless shelters and food banks throughout New England, and people have responded enthusiastically.”

A crowd of good size greeted BGP at Brattleboro’s Latchis Theatre, and the next day the band played the historic Boston Common in “an open-air church service for people who don’t have a place to live. That was something! Every week, a minister comes out and makes up a church service for people who would otherwise probably not have an opportunity to go to church or perhaps might not feel comfortable doing so. After their service, we played a free concert on the Common and had a nice crowd.”

Casey is thinking ahead to making her fifth disc. “I still really love my last album and had so much fun recording it that I’m really looking forward to making another one, as opposed to feeling apprehensive about it, which can happen.” She has original songs circulating among Nashville stars. “I’m realistic about that: It almost never pans out, but it’s fun to think of them listening to my work.”

Merrie Amsterburg, in the 1980s, connected with the Burlington rock band, Little Sister. The resulting outfit, The Natives — then based in Boston — had a couple of brushes with major labels. These days, Amsterburg may be best known for her singer-songwriter albums, Little Steps being an especial prize. She has a slightly nasal voice, and her singing is pretty.

Amsterburg plays the Cambridge Arts Council Coffeehouse in Jeffersonville, on Dec. 6. “I’ll be doing songs from all three albums,” she said, “with my versions of some holiday songs thrown in there as well! I’ll bring several instruments and be performing as a duo, with Peter Linton on vocals and guitar. What could be better than to do a holiday show in Vermont for friends and family — and of course, fans too! We’re really looking forward to it.”

David Mallett is at the Middle Earth Music Hall in Bradford, on Dec. 15. His Midnight on the Water, a live collection of fan favorites, was recorded at shows along the Maine coast in the summer of 2005 and likely sells briskly.

Rock 4 a Cure is a Parkinson’s disease benefit featuring The Gordon Stone Band, The Brew, and The Scott Tournet Band at Higher Ground in South Burlington, on Dec. 16. Many Vermonters know Tournet from Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, and he got to really shine on the User Shorty Patent Co. CD.

Look out for Orchestrapalooza, presented by the Vermont Youth Orchestra Association, (VYOA) Flynn MainStage, on Dec. 17. This very big show features “all four VYOA orchestras in a special Flynn Center performance.”

Grace Potter and the Nocturnals bring 2006 to a close with ticketed events at Higher Ground from Dec. 29 to Dec. 31.

Sad news: Aerosmith’s Joe Perry and his wife Billie told a Boston Globe reporter they are selling their Vermont farm.

Pete Weiss heads Verdant Studio near Bellows Falls. Speaking of a forthcoming Bow Thayer album, he said Thayer “travelled to Belize, stayed in an electricity-less hut, and recorded a bunch of new songs with a battery-operated recording device. He sang and played various stringed instruments. Then he brought these embryonic tracks up to Verdant where we have been sweetening, adding to, editing, and basically shaping what is going to be a very cool and unique album. The last CD we worked on together, Spend It All, is finally getting released in the next few weeks.”

From George Jones to the Vermont Symphony to a Grace Potter and the Nocturnals blowout, 2006 is headed for a strong finish.