By Alan Lewis | Special to theVermont Guardian
Posted December 22, 2006
Vermonters, both at home and away, have made 2006 a fascinating year for new record releases, touching diverse bases such as old-school folk, retro pop, bluegrass, world music on Eastern instruments, and a novel Green Mountain venture into surf-rock.
Clementine and Other Stories, Merrie Amsterburg
In the 1980s, Merrie Amsterburg connected with the ex-Burlington band, Little Sister. The resulting new outfit was called The Natives. Through a career fronting a rock band and then soloing as a modern singer-songwriter, Amsterburg has made great music of her own, while serving as an in-demand supporting musician for other artists. She has been a steady presence in diverse Vermont venues. But Clementine and Other Stories may surprise even fans here who well know her past work. Clementine is one of the best and prettiest albums of U.S. traditional song since those hazy days in the 1950s when the Kingston Trio’s hits charged up the folk community and ushered in a lot of younger musicians. Amsterburg’s arrangements are thoughtful, the playing is skilled, and this disc is the best yet at capturing her lovely soprano voice. These things and more combine to make Clementine a gorgeous, essential listening experience.
Shaken by a Low Sound, Crooked Still
The updated bluegrass and old-time sounds of Crooked Still have all it takes to charm fans who normally do not listen to string-band music. These musicians have earned a reputation as innovators, which particularly shows in the playing of the cellist and banjo-picker. But if Crooked Still is to soar higher, it is the skill and care these four apply to their music that will make it happen. The new Shaken by a Low Sound is laced with performances that are exceptionally well done. In the early 1980s, critics often spoke of the “neo-traditionalists” of country music. The classic-rock finish of Crooked Still’s records is reminiscent of Rosanne Cash, the best of the neo-traditionalist crowd. Crooked Still bassist Corey DiMario, who ostensibly is the rhythm section, probably deserves much credit. He is now based in southern Vermont, having been lured by its ski slopes and dance scene. Crooked Still is positively blessed by the singing of Aoife O’Donovan, whose voice has old-fashioned virtues and whose art involves a knowing delivery of the lyrics’ meaning.
The Arkansas Traveler: Music from Little House on the Prairie, Dale Cockrell
Vermont Public Radio may have been first to broadcast The Arkansas Traveler: Music from Little House on the Prairie. It is a marvelous program based on the 19th-century U.S. popular and folk music that weaves through the beloved “Little House” children’s books. The main projector of these radio shows and CDs is once-and-future Vermonter Dale Cockrell. He won the Irving Lowens Award from the Society for American Music for authoring the best 1989 book on U.S. music. Arkansas Traveler is the second and finest disc in his “Little House” series. The music is delightfully varied and features period gems including Civil War songs, “Roll on Silver Moon,” and “Green Grows the Laurel” which is sung beautifully by Vermonter Deborah Packard. Artists range from old favorite Mac Wiseman to exciting likely future star Elizabeth Cook. Arkansas Traveler is a rich mix of accomplished musicianship, U.S. history, and classic tunes.
Makes You Strong, Bluegrass Gospel Project
Bluegrass Gospel Project was originally a one-shot ensemble, brought together only for First Night Burlington 2001. But instead of then breaking up, the Project has picked up steam. The band’s Wander On CD was among the Vermont Guardian’s “Best of 2005” picks, and 2006 has to be the band’s biggest year yet, with a great tour through the Northeast including a memorable outdoors appearance on Boston Common. The new Makes You Strong CD improves on the 2005 release, starting powerfully with great interpretations of Peter Rowan’s “Revelation” and “Is That You,” a Buddy and Julie Miller creation. Highlights include terrific group vocals, great picking and fiddling, and Patti Casey’s haunting vocal on “Poughkeepsie.” It will be interesting to see whether Bluegrass Gospel Project can top 2006.
Big Dream Boulevard, Antje Duvekot
A music career’s history can be a funny thing. Evidently Antje Duvekot’s fine 2002 CD, Little Peppermints, did not draw a lot of attention. Yet a chain of events, which started with Peppermints, smoothed the way for an appearance in a New Artist showcase at the Falcon Ridge Festival. One thing led to another and ultimately that led to airplay on Massachusetts college radio and the building of an audience in the all-important Boston folk scene. Duvekot’s cause has been championed by one of the best bands around, Solas. Star singer-songwriter Ellis Paul has since taken her under his wing. Duvekot’s new Big Dream Boulevard is both melodic and moody, featuring frequent touches of dark beauty. She wrote several of these songs while living just outside Brattleboro. Big Dream Boulevard is among the hottest records on the singer-songwriter trail. Favorite cuts include “Go Now” and the uniquely-titled “Sex Bandaid.”
Being There, Steve Gillette and Cindy Mangsen
Vermont has a few musical aces up its sleeve, and one is the Bennington duo Steve Gillette and Cindy Mangsen. Gillette is an accomplished and much-covered songwriter. Mangsen is something of a scenemaker, promoting Bennington’s annual hospice benefit, serving as the public face of Compass Rose Records, and singing and playing in a fine harmony trio with friends Anne Hills and Priscilla Herdman. The new Gillette/Mangsen CD Being There is most notable for its wide variety of material. The subject matter, too, ranges from the amusing nonsense of “Odd Man Out” to serious consideration of the great storm of 1935 (which devastated the Florida Keys) in Gillette’s excellent original, “Hurricane.” Supporting musicians include legendary Vermont fiddler Pete Sutherland who doubles on piano. The long reach of this duo’s extensive tours is reflected in the reworked “Vermont Waltz,” a French-language medley, and “High Cotton,” which features a wonderfully reflective vocal by Mangsen.
5-05-05 Live, Jaye Muller & Ben Patton
Jaye Muller is a former Brattleboro resident with a background in rock, hip-hop, and pop. He also projects a rock star aura. Since his Vermont days, Muller has often collaborated with Burlington native Ben Patton. Many young musicians today write and perform as if they think the 90s never happened. Patton appears also to have his doubts about the 80s and late-70s. He is a pop-rock traditionalist who is quite at home with Beatles and Brian Wilson styles and with the frequent light melodies and breezy lyrics of the early 1970s. He has a new album, Because the Heart, but his 2006 highlight is the Muller and Patton DVD 5-05-05 Live. In the DVD’s main concert, shot in London, Patton often has center stage. More Muller would be good. But he adds real kick to these performances, making the collaboration strong indeed. These two are fortunate to have band members who play well and also sing, giving the show a full sound. To date, 5-05-05 Live is the single best introduction to Muller and Patton or to either musician individually.
Crossing Painted Islands, 35th Parallel/MJE
35th Parallel is a Vermont/New Hampshire world music team, with an especially strong Montpelier presence. It is also one of today’s best and most intriguing New England bands. 35th Parallel is mostly the duo of Gabe Halberg and Mac Ritchie, playing a variety of Eastern percussion and stringed instruments. At times, the group expands into the MediterrAsian Jazz Ensemble (MJE), an outfit inspired in part by a popular band of years past, viperHouse. Both the core duo and the larger MJE laid down tracks for the latest CD, the melodic, highly accessible Crossing Painted Islands. Like their debut release, the new CD mixes diverse music styles and ideas in new ways, while blending the exotic with the familiar. On Crossing Painted Islands, duo performances trade off with “big band” cuts. Compositions vary considerably, from the brief, charming “Kou Xiang” to the more wild and blustery fare of “The Deep.”
Featuring “Perky,” The Weisstronauts
Pete Weiss, the proprietor of Verdant recording studio near Bellows Falls, leads a splashy surf-rocking outfit, The Weisstronauts. The band made a November tour from Boston into the South, with Doug Yule as a surprise stand-in on bass. Many rockers know Yule from his early-1970s days in the last lineups of The Velvet Underground. The Weisstronauts newest album, Featuring “Perky,” sports mostly traditional surf styles. But The Ventures backing Johnny Cash is a first clue to the sound of the “Perky” track “Odysseus Goes to America,” while “Uncle Turtle/Johnny Drama” gives the disc a shot of rockabilly. Where the Weisstronauts’ surf-rock is least traditional is in track titles, such as “Creosote” and especially “Frozen Pipe Boogie,” which could only be a north shore creation.
Regardless of your preferred style of music, Vermont musicians covered it this year. So, why not catch a wave to a local record store or surf the Internet to the bands’ websites or other outlets and check out these excellent examples of Vermont-inspired music.