Sunday, August 14, 2005

Three new posts


If you read on below you will find three recent stories I wrote for Mercury, a Newport, RI-based arts paper that is an offshoot of the Newport Daily News. With some digging around or googling, you can find these things out there on the web, but Mercury's (stated) web archive capacity is only two months (that applies to the advanced search feature as well) so, unless you had the specific link to, say, the June 22 Ted Leo piece, you wouldn't be able to find it through Mercury. Kind of a pain, but fuckit. I put the stories and specific links here (no photo art - sorry) to make it a little easier for my three readers and also as a one-stop catch-all for my own freelance portfolio.

Mercury is pretty cool, I think. It's still very much in its infancy, but they've got a solid little crew that includes editor diva Janine Weisman and photo diva Jaqueline Marque (my youngest brother's fiancee) and it's quite refreshing to see a small independent publisher like Buck Sherman and family taking a chance on a fledgeling paper with an arts focus. The world needs more outfits like this.

I contribute things to Mercury on a sporadic freelance basis, pretty much focusing on music-related stuff because, well, music-related stuff is all I really am able to focus on for more than five minutes, but there are reviews, features and columns by others that cover everything from human interest stuff like all-girl roller derby to advice on how not to get arrested to reviews of plays and burger joints. The paper's "target market" is that 18-34 college/Peter Pan-syndrome bracket (one that I will technically be too old to belong to come next summer). They ran their first issue this past spring and publish a new edition every Wednesday that gets distributed around Aquidneck Island (Newport is on an island, you know) as well as the various college campuses in the state (URI, Brown University, Providence College, etc.).

More on this in a bit.

Jim and Jennie & The Pinetops story - Newport Mercury 8/3/05 - full text

Rooted in bluegrass, grazing in other pastures

Newport Folk Festival advance
SAT., AUG. 6, Strings Stage: Jim and Jennie & The Pinetops


Jim Krewson had a bad case of nerves a few weeks ago when he was getting a bunch of his paintings and sculptures ready for a gallery showing in New York City.

The nerves suddenly vanished when he remembered that his bluegrass band, Jim and Jennie & The Pinetops, were going to be playing at this year's Dunkin' Donuts Newport Folk Fest. "It's crazy," the 37-year-old singer/guitarist said. "I mean, how many people are going to be there?"

But for Krewson - who, along with The Pinetops, has played countless bluegrass and folk festivals all over the country since the group formed in 1998 - it's not the crowd size of this particular festival that he finds daunting. It's the history.

"I know about Dylan going electric there, and I've listened to all the old Newport bluegrass recordings," he said. The Newport Folk Festival recordings, which date back to the late 1950s and early 1960s, include the likes of Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs and Jim and Jesse, all key influences for the Pinetops.

Krewson met guitarist and mandolin player Jennie Benford in New York City in the late 1990s and discovered they shared a mutual love of bluegrass music. Krewson was a punk rocker who got hooked on the genre while digging through his father's record collection. Benford had grown up in a family of bluegrass enthusiasts. The two moved to the Northampton, Mass., area and formed Jim and Jennie & The Pine Barons. Banjo player Brad Hutchison, upright bass fiddle player Brendan Skwire (a former Newporter and 1989 Rogers High School graduate who had played bass in the RI heavy metal band Wicked Bitch), and fiddle player Chris DiPinto completed the Barons' lineup. After releasing their first studio album, a self-titled disc on the Phovsho Records label, a similarly named group got wind of their name and forced them to change Pine Barons to Pinetops.

The band relocated to Philadelphia, but for several years could have just as easily called their 1986 Chevy Jamboree RV home, "shlepping it" on the road, as Krewson put it, and plying their traditional sound on a growing fan base. DiPinto and Skwire eventually left the fold. Today, the Pinetops are a four-piece band with bass player Matt Downing rounding out the group.

With Krewson living in Hudson, NY, Downing living in western Massachusetts, and Benford and Hutchison (who are a couple) living in North Carolina, the Pinetops are not as active a band as they had been, but Krewson said they have reached "a comfortable point" and are still having fun making music together. Last April, they released their fourth studio CD, "Rivers Roll On By," on the prominent roots label Bloodshot Records.

"We're slowing down the band but moving up label-wise," he said. "Everybody knows (Bloodshot) and they have their shit together."

While the latest album is rooted in bluegrass, fans familiar with their earlier material may notice the band pushing the bounds of the genre as well. Like their first two records, there is an ample helping of traditionals and covers of their forebearers - this time, a pair of Don Reno tunes - but they leave plenty of room for originals as well, with Benford's creations taking a particularly somber, singer-songwriter-styled turn. They also throw drums, electric guitar, and banjocaster (an instrument capable of a variety of electrified guitar and banjo sounds that Hutchison has been having fun with lately) into the mix, all elements that would be verboten on a pure bluegrass record.

"We just wanted to not limit ourselves to the genre," Krewson said, noting that the band was beginning to find the devotion to pure bluegrass somewhat restrictive. "If the song calls for drums or calls for electric guitar, f*** it. I think we excel when we're being true to ourselves and not trying to fit into the (bluegrass) mold."

M Ward story - Newport Mercury 8/3/05 - full text

Whether between sets or genres - no breaks

Newport Folk Festival advance
SUN., AUG. 7, Dunkin' Donuts Stage: M. Ward


With big-name headliners like Elvis Costello and rising indie-rock stars like Bright Eyes, it is doubtful that this year's Newport Folk Festival will end up reminding you of your parents' old Peter, Paul & Mary records. This is an eclectic mix, to say the least.

And if there is one artist on the lineup who mirrors this eclectic approach in his own music, it's M. Ward.

Matt Ward, a 31-year-old southern California native, is often assigned the "alt-country" tag, but he's also known to have covered everyone from David Bowie to Johann Sebastian Bach. His fourth and latest release, "Transistor Radio," on the Merge Records label, is a slow-burning ride that melds country, blues, classical guitar and folk rock without making it sound like a random hodgepodge. At the center of it all is the smoky croon of Ward, who trades off between piano and acoustic guitar while flourishes of fuzz-drenched feedback, woozy lap steel or echoing drums sneak in to add occasional texture.

Reached recently by phone at his home in Portland, Ore., Ward said he doesn't see his music fitting into a single, airtight genre.

"It's hard for me to describe the music because I have no perspective on it, because it's so much part of my life," Ward said. "That's why normally I would leave it to other people to describe, but when I am forced to say something, I just have to say that it's guitar and piano music. That's all I can really say, because part of the fun for me is messing with genres and blurring the lines. That's what makes music interesting for me is experimenting with these different styles. It would be a very boring road to have just one genre for me and just stick to it."

In July, Ward returned from a three-date festival jaunt in Italy and France. He had one gig booked for a far smaller crowd - the 250-capacity Maxwell's in Hoboken, N.J. - before his appearance at the Newport Folk Fest, but he said he didn't see much of a difference between playing for thousands in a festival setting and playing for a relative handful at a club.

"They're actually really similar for me, because I'm focusing more on the music rather than on all of the other stimuli that are out there for any given show," Ward said. "The best thing to do, in my opinion, is to focus on the songs and to focus on the other people that are up on stage with you. To focus on the music is always the best thing."

Ward started making a name for himself about five years ago after he left the band Rodriguez. Ward's music caught the ear of Howe Gelb, mastermind of underground legends Giant Sand, who put out Ward's debut, "Duet For Guitars #2," on his Ow Om record label. Since then, Ward has put out three more records and played for audiences large and small across Europe and the United States. In addition to the boon that Gelb gave him, Ward has increased in popularity as a tour supporter and live band member of Bright Eyes.

Between Ward, Jim James and Bright Eyes, don't expect to see many different faces on stage - in fact, the three sets are essentially going to be a case of musical chairs where they all end up playing in each other's bands.

"It's gonna be this new sort of group that Conor Oberst and Jim James and I have created," Ward said. "We've done a couple of tours where we collaborate on each other's songs and it's just a collaborative effort all around, so that's gonna be my band. It'll all be mixed up. All three of our sets will be mixed up together. No breaks."

Ted Leo story - Newport Mercury 6/22/05 - full text

Ted's turn


"Holy crap, it's Ted Leo!"

That's how 21-year-old University of Rhode Island student Meg Bickford reacted when she thought she saw the front man of Ted Leo and The Pharmacists enter Wakefield Liquors last January. Bickford, who was working at the store, wanted to be sure, so she checked the New Jersey driver's license of the man buying a six-pack of Hoegarten and a bottle of wine at the checkout counter. Sure enough it was him.

"My heart was pounding," said Bickford, whose older sister Susie had turned her on to the Pharmacists and taken her to New York to see the band at the Bowery Ballroom a month earlier. "He was super nice, friendly, and he talked to me for about 10 minutes, just small talk. I couldn't wait to get home and call my sister."

Leo sightings should be no surprise now that the 34-year-old singer and guitarist of the tuneful rock outfit is officially living in Wakefield after getting married last year to longtime girlfriend Jodi Buonanno, a Rhode Island native who has her own full plate of artistic and musical endeavors. A Bloomfield, N.J., native who spent most of the last 15 years living in Washington, D.C., and Boston, Leo's new home is the Narragansett Grange Hall, which Buonanno and a friend bought in the late 1990s and converted into a residential workspace for artists.

"Construction-wise, we're still working on it, but it's been livable and usable for years," Leo said. "Part of the idea behind the place was to have living and working space and invite an artist-in-residence to come and live and be able to do their thing on the cheap for a period of time. Unfortunately, my moving in has also meant that there's not a lot space for another person right now, but we're trying to figure out how we can make that happen again soon."

Beyond college radio

While Leo may be settling down in his personal life, the same can hardly be said for his band, which remains a full-time job replete with writing, recording, and aggressive touring. Mainstream critical acclaim for the band has expanded their popularity beyond college radio darling status - they logged a second live guest appearance on "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" in February. Touring on the steam of their latest album, Shake The Sheets, released last October on the Lookout! Records label, Leo noticed a remarkable spike in attendance at the live shows.

"The crazy thing that has happened is, just in the last six months, is that it's doubled," Leo said. "And that's a bit of 'Whoa!' I've never had to experience that 'Whoa!' kind of feeling before, you know? Because it had always been 'Oh yeah, that's cool, there were 25 more people here than there were the last time!' for like 10 years."

The Pharmacists played two sold-out gigs in a row last December at The Middle East in Cambridge, Mass.. For the upcoming June 25 show, the Middle East has booked the 899-seat Somerville Theatre in order to accommodate a larger anticipated crowd, according to Kevin Hoskins, booking agent for the 575-seat Middle East Downstairs room. "We chose to do the show there this time because obviously one night downstairs isn't enough," Hoskins said.

Leo does not point to a singular cause for the increase in popularity and show attendance.

"It just seems like that this last record just actually kind of connected with more people than the previous (records) have. It seems to have connected with a lot more young people. I can assume that's because it's a bit of a faster, punkier record than some others that I've made in a while, but I don't really know," Leo said.

Faster and punkier has not always been Leo's modus operandi with much of the Pharmacists' material, but his ties to the punk scene date back to the late 1980s New York hardcore era when he was in the bands Citizens Arrest and Animal Crackers. He went on to earn more notoriety within underground circles as the frontman for Chisel, a band that took heavy cues from late '70s British mod-punk artists like The Jam and Elvis Costello. Formed in 1990 in Washington, D.C., with fellow Notre Dame students Chris Norborg and John Dugan, Chisel recorded three albums before disbanding in 1997. Leo then formed the short-lived (read: one-year-long band) The Sin Eaters with his brother, Danny Leo, and Sean Greene (formerly of The Van Pelt), and also spent some time playing guitar with The Spinanes, a folky indie-rock act that would have been more likely to share the stage with Providence's late, great Small Factory than, say, an all-ages afternoon punk rock lineup.

In the late 1990s, Leo started The Pharmacists as essentially his solo act, but he would be joined by other musicians, particularly his cohorts from the Secret Stars, a band of Boston and Rhode Island musicians that include Buonanno. The first Pharmacists full-length record - released under the name Tej Leo (?) Rx/Pharmacists - was a vast departure musically from his Chisel records with its heavy dose of experimental noise and dub. Compared to the more straight-ahead rock that would increase on ensuing Pharmacists albums, Leo and his band pulled a "reverse-Clash" by first getting out of the way their Sandinista! (The Clash's sprawling and most reggae-fied, stylistically diverse outing).

"Now we're into some Mescaleros phase or something," Leo concurred with a laugh, referring to Clash frontman Joe Strummer's final post-Clash group.

"That was part reactionary to expectations of making another pop-punk kind of record, but also just, in a more positive sense, an experimentation on my part," Leo said. "Thinking back, my opinion on that record is that, even in some of the most noisy bits, there are kernels of songs that were full enough that when I toured - I used to tour alone at that point - I could play all those songs on the record with just me and a guitar and they would be just songs, as opposed to the dubby, noisy experiments that they are on the record. Making the record as it was, and then going out and reining those songs back in started to rekindle my enthusiasm for sticking to maybe what I do best."

Punk virtuoso

Sticking to what Leo does best has led to an increasingly stripped-down band - which for the past couple of years has included bass player Dave Lerner and drummer Chris Wilson - as he crafts more songs that incorporate songwriting that mixes the personal with the political. To some ears, Leo has earned a seat among the founding fathers of the more sophisticated punk music, a pantheon that includes the likes of Jake Burns of Stiff Little Fingers, TV Smith of The Adverts, and, of course, Paul Weller of The Jam.

Leo cited the song, "Scrape Away," from the Jam's Sound Effects LP as an example. "It's just one of those songs; it's political, and the way that it is (political) is by detailing this conversation by two former idealists who have grown up, that kind of more ... I don't want to say subtle, but maybe a more nuanced approach to it. It's something that I definitely try to achieve."

Leo has also found some harsh critics among his loyal fans. Some fans cried foul earlier this year, when the band released Sharkbite Sessions, a three-song EP exclusively available on the music download service iTunes that included a cover of Irish punk legends Stiff Little Fingers' "Suspect Device." When iTunes approached Leo's record label with the idea, the band decided to use some songs they had recorded for an Australian-only split release with the Australian band Blueline Medic. Leo said it seemed like a fun, easy way to share those songs with stateside fans who would otherwise have had a harder, more expensive time tracking down the import disc.

"The kids don't like it," Leo said with a chuckle. "It's the first time I've ever actually been accused of selling out. I think it's ridiculous that someone would charge that doing an iTunes exclusive EP (is selling out). I mean, I'm sorry, I use Macs, you know? Whatever!"

"I guess I could have put them on my Web site for free," Leo added. "But everybody who makes records could do that with every record that they make. I actually considered the fact that 'Oh that's cool, it'll be a cheap way to get these three songs out.'"

Once the Pharmacists return at the end of June from a month-long American tour, Leo plans on spending some much-needed downtime at home. With the exception of a solo appearance July 16 in Providence as part of AS220's 20th anniversary celebration, having the entire month of July off will be "the longest consecutive break" he's had in the past three years, Leo said.

Leo is a bit amused by the attention his new residential status has gotten lately.

"It's interesting, because WBRU has been playing some of my stuff a lot recently and just, like, hammering that factoid so hard," Leo said. "I have a long history with Providence specifically and Rhode Island in general. I've been in bands for 15 years that have been playing shows in Providence, and you know, all over the place and stuff. So, it's just really interesting sometimes what it takes to get noticed at a local level."

Ted Leo joins other performers who have played at AS220 in the past 20 years for "The 20 Fest," a free admission block party on Empire Street in downtown Providence on Sat., July 16, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. For complete line-up, visit

Ted Leo and The Pharmacists perform Sat., June 25, with Radio 4 and Spitzz at The Somerville Theatre, 55 Davis Square, Somerville, Mass. Doors open at 7 p.m. Show starts at 8. All ages. Tickets $15. (617) 931-2000.

Monday, August 08, 2005

Foist post

Well, not really. This is maybe the third or fourth time that I've tried to start up one of these bad boys. First one was a livejournal, based on a suggestion from an editor I'd had when I was working for a web publication that turned out to be a scam (at least for those of us writers who had believed the false promise that we'd eventually get paid). I found the livejournal site a bit dodgy to navigate and got bored with it after a few posts. The next one was a typepad account. I forked over a few bucks because, at the time, I was trying to start a music-related blog to fuel a business plan that eventually petered out (I never really got the site past the mockup stage). My brother Chris swears by typepad, and I visit it regularly to get updates on his Red Sox problem and his horse race gambling as well as the latest Maria Carey joint he's been bumping in his iPod (go here to check it out) . My other brother Eamon had one called eamonisajerk going for awhile but he eventually lost interest and dumped it. It's too bad; he's a great writer.

I do the occasional blog-ish post on
my myspace account, but I haven't been able to update it as religiously as Chris or my friends Brendan and Taryn do.

What really brings me to blogspot, though, is that I had to get an account in order to make some wise-ass remarks about Brendan's new
tattoo ideas.

More later. I promise. Hah.