It’s only taken me eight months to investigate the Vermont music scene. Moved here, lost a job here, got back on my feet here — and I’m ready to play.
Happy to report it is a great way to stay in touch with my musical side, and witness the small but mighty community of songwriters and performers that are keeping the spirit alive here.
The Millhouse Heaters — including Jan and Mike Sheehy and a harmonica player I did not get to meet — rocked the Pizza Stone in Chester last Tuesday night. With longtime friend Bill Brink on hand, a few of us performed as well.
Paden Kalinen, guitarist and host, welcomed open mic’ers to two hours of fun.
And a few short weeks ago, I got to play, again courtesy of an invite from Bill, at the Vermont Apple Festival in Springfield, with a handful of talented performers.
Part of my inspiration? A neighbor named Chris Kleeman, who has his own jazz band and lives a stone’s throw up the road. As summer trailed off, I and a friend got to see them perform in the Chester Summer Music series on the Green.
Also inspiring: another neighbor, Scott MacDonald, who repairs guitars and shapes custom models to a player’s soul. He adjusted the action on my dear old Yamaha — just because. It still has a sound better than some expensive guitars, and now I can play it without losing all sensation in my left hand.
What else can I say except: It’s time to get back in the saddle as a singer/songwriter, and as a blogger, too. I hope to have more to share in coming weeks and months, including an original or two.
Sue Menhart is sassy. She’s sultry. And she’s sympathetic as the subject of a memoir that pulls no punches in detailing the trials and triumphs of a life led working a day job while founding and fronting a rock band.
Full disclaimer: I have shared the solo-acoustic corner of a pub or two in New London County, Conn., with this woman and joined her in the audience at occasional Sinners’ Circles where newcomers and veterans alike performed originals to a packed listening room. I also have seen her prance and project on stage with the Sue Menhart Band, ripping through some bluesy number with the energy and fury of her idol, Pat Benatar.
So too, have countless others, and when she belts out the tune, “Where’d You Come From,” her soulful presence rocks the room. But she is a singer/songwriter at heart, persisting in an unforgiving industry where streaming songs pay a fraction of a cent and competition is fierce.
They Made Me Play a Polka reads like a hybrid of stand-up comedy and a playful whodunnit: laugh-out-loud funny but fast-paced and driven by a mix of well-known and unnamed characters populating a world where Grammys are as elusive as (and not unlike) the lottery, and you keep waiting for an answer to the question: Why isn’t Menhart a star? A page-turner, the book invites you to uncover layer after layer of reasons for this stark reality — some her own doing and some the fault of a maniacal music industry that takes no prisoners.
Living through everything from Lyme disease to motherhood to husband/drummer Kevin’s life-threatening illnesses, Menhart has bigger wars to wage, mainly with her illusions about the viability of “making it” in the music world.
Maybe she should have stayed in California as a young wannabe instead of coming back East. Maybe she should have made an even more concerted effort than she did at self-promotion on Apple Music. Maybe she should have never accepted that gig at a local vineyard that didn’t exactly go as planned.
There is very little whining in this memoir, or regret. There is no glossing over struggles with alcohol or real human emotions of frustration, aggravation and the lust for lasting fame.
What there is is self-deprecating humor; a bold, scrappy commitment to her role as leader of a southeastern Connecticut band with rock ‘n’ roll roots; candid heart-to-hearts for those of us with dreams of fame or, at least, airplay on Sirius radio; and, in the middle of the book, a searing and well-researched assessment of exactly what it takes to produce and promote original band or solo material. The pitfalls, the behind-the-scenes manipulation and the sheer hard work.
She reaches several conclusions at the end, but — spoiler alert — one rings truest: “I like singing,” she writes. “And nobody’s gonna stop me.”
That conviction may have landed her her latest gig. Look for Menhart at the Maugle Sierra Vineyards in Ledyard, Conn., from 3-6 p.m. on Oct. 7. Then pick up this memoir and follow her on the Sue Menhart Band website. Why? Because she knows her why. She’s still at it, and thriving.
This … is my new banjo. And I’m discovering, as a longtime guitarist, that three’s a crowd.
For me, the allure of the banjo is how it stands out acoustically in bluegrass and folk music, and almost has a percussion-type role to play side by side instruments like mandolin and guitar.
But adding this instrument, with it’s challenging finger-picking style, to my more familiar Yamaha- and Ovation-accompanied repertoire is proving daunting.
My love affair with the banjo’s big sister, the guitar, began at age 10, when I learned to read music, but shyly hid little milestones — playing nervously to family, with my back to them, fingers trembling, heart racing.
Fast forward 32 years. The writer in me won out. I began to write and perform songs in earnest, after having learned to fingerpick Led Zeppelin’s “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You” at age 15 from a guy named Mark in a summer arts program at Wesleyan University and again, with more discipline, in my late 30s, focusing on classical works for several months with a professional teacher.
All of that finger-picking expertise figured into my songwriting, as I pulled melodies from the chords I dissected with hands not yet tinged with arthritis.
Fast forward another decade, and my songwriting spree began to dry up. This past year, as an anniversary with my partner approached, I began listening to classic banjo, clawhammer banjo, and whatever else I could find on YouTube. And my partner listened to my pleas and helped buy me a Gold Tone banjo starter kit from Hanover Strings in Hanover, N.H. (Full disclosure: Hanover Strings did not pay for my banjo or pay me to write this.)
The five-string banjo, as fellow musician and former bandmate Luke Selden advised me, has a mellow tone that suits my voice and folky style. Yet, although I’m playing a 30-minute set at the Springfield, Vt., Apple Festival on Oct. 6, I’m not planning to pull out my five-string.
The reason is simple: With the help of a chord chart in G tuning, I’ve only been able to pick out a few tunes so far: “The Rose,” “Let Her Go” by Passenger, and “Come Back,” an early original and my partner’s favorite.
What I really want to do is pull a Steve Martin and dive out of my comfort zone into that lightning-speed finger-picking style for which he and his peers have become known. The actor is incredibly accomplished and at ease on the banjo. As were Earl Scruggs and Ralph Stanley. And this youngster.
Until I commit to lessons, or spend some time using online video tutorials, you won’t see me playing my banjo publicly. But I am determined to make this banjo fit into a tiny space we have dubbed “The Music Room.” My third instrument. My next conquest.
Singer, songwriter, musician, or band leader … whatever you call her, Sue Menhart knows a little something about music. And she knows even more about love.
“Love Ain’t Hard” is her latest compilation, a bluesy mix of songs that touch on love lost, love re-discovered, love that lasts – and love that just plain explodes! Based in Stonington, Menhart says the title’s meaning is pretty simple: “Just have to get that chip off your shoulder and let it in. Life’s short.”
Leap, for instance, into the power of the music itself, strongest and most poignant in “Can’t Feel the Rain.”
Listen to this:
“Highway’s one more mile,” she says. “What am I doing this for? I can’t feel the rain no more.”
A traveling troubadour? a lover of dreams, still chasing them, but numb from the weariness of the journey?
Her gritty take on loving that journey, backed by piano, guitar, and drums, is a lament. “Where did my fire go?” she wonders as sax takes over instrumentally, underscoring the gut-wrenching message. And as she belts out, “I can’t feel it!” you can feel it — the passion, the frustration, the endurance, and yes, the love.
So is the CD’s title also tongue-in-cheek? A sort of sarcastic disclaimer for someone who knows more than she’s letting on?
Well, if you’re thinking this song represents the CD’s main groove, you’d be wrong. As moving and insightful as “Can’t Feel the Rain” is, it’s the tribute to the Brian Wilson song, “Party on the Beach,” that has more of the vibe Menhart is after: “Just good old fashioned fun.”
Judge for yourself:
“When you see Brian Wilson … trying to have some fun … have a party on the beach!” she demands. And who couldn’t resist that invitation?
As a whole, “Love Ain’t Hard” is a solid, cantankerous, rocking good time, with a kind of earthy realism mixed in on the moodier numbers.
Here’s one more taste of Sue’s wisdom, couched in wonder in this beautiful ballad, “Moving On”:
“Wherever you roam, you’re never alone,” she promises. Despite life’s lonely, alienating tricks.
Whether the song’s tone is heavy or light, Menhart’s lyrics are so straightforward, yet heartfelt, analysis seems disingenuous.
As for the voice, it’s got depth, rasp, conviction, and resolve. A resolve, in fact, patterned after the sax that lifts, accompanies, underscores and capitulates on most of the tracks. Credit saxophonists Don Packer and and Tommy Mahfoo with getting it right.
Besides Menhart’s contributions on electric guitar, band members include husband Kevin Clark on drums, Dave Foret on bass, Don Bergeron on lead electric guitars and Dan Spano on the keyboard.
Persistence, plus patience, produced “Love Ain’t Hard.” Dennis Walley, who runs Stone Wall Studios in North Stonington, CT, recorded, mixed and mastered all the songs.
“Half the songs were recorded three years ago and the other half earlier this year,” Menhart recalled. “We released ‘Can’t Feel the Rain’ from that first batch in 2015 and it won a New London Whalie Award for Best Roots Rock Performance. We took a break in between due to band members’ illnesses and I think somebody quit and came back, lol. Dennis was able to meld it all together.”
And meld it, he did – with the kind of fabulous finesse reserved for true artists.
And to catch her live, riffing on artists like Bonnie Raitt and the Tedeschi Trucks Band, check out Menhart-Bergeron Acoustic Madness on Dec. 27 at the Steak Loft in Mystic. And request an original. “Love Ain’t Hard” is just the tip of the iceberg in this woman’s repertoire.
Songwriters and musicians Mike Bailey and Ron Gletherow have written “The Crossing,” a magical musical that will soon be performed in the greater New London, CT region, if not beyond. Here is the story behind their story.
How did you two collaborators decide to put together this musical?
RON: It began with Mike’s song, “Crossing,” that he wrote for the last album put out by [their music group] Maggie’s Guitar. Apart from being the strongest song on the album, making it the obvious choice for title track, it also came with such an incredible story, that it was Margaret [Ron’s wife] who first said to me, “You know, this would make a great stage musical.” The gears in my head immediately started turning. A musical is something I’d wanted to do for ages. I broached the subject to Mike, and found he was as enthusiastic as I was.
What is gist of the story?
MIKE: My great-great-great grandfather was a wealthy merchant in Edinburgh. His son eloped with the maid. His father didn’t approve, had the marriage annulled and sent the woman away. The son threatened to leave if his father didn’t bring her back. He didn’t, and the son ran away to America. A few months later, the woman returned with a baby boy. She was dying, and the grandfather raised the boy and his son.
When the boy turned 18 or so, the grandfather told him the story of his father, and the boy set off for America to find him. After a few years of searching across New England, the son was working in a mill. He was telling his story to his foreman, who said, “I’ve heard your story before. I know your father. He’s the man who owns this mill.”
Father and son were reunited. It’s an incredible coincidence, but it’s true.
What kinds of audiences are you hoping to attract?
RON: I believe the show will appeal to all kinds of audience, young and old, and not necessarily just the ones who would normally attend stage shows. The music is so diverse, there’s something for everyone. There’s the traditional show-type songs with full orchestration that you would expect, but there’s also some folky stuff and even some soft rock.
Mike, you wrote the opening song, “Don’t Wait for Tomorrow.” This song has a message of perspective born of experience. Why did you make this song the opener?
MIKE: The play is narrated by George Morrison, the grandfather, and it opens with him towards the end of his life, telling the audience he has a story to tell. He talks about how he worked his way up from nothing, how he’s proud of a lot of what he’s done, not so proud of things he’s missed. So, it sets up the message of loss.
“Je t’aime Toujours,” of course is a love song. The refrain is delicate and memorable. The instrumentation elevates the feeling of intimacy. How did you decide on the arrangement?
MIKE: I just wrote the song and told Ron I envisioned a rock power ballad. Then Ron worked magic. He contacted Jack Moriarty to do the guitar work, which was just superb.
RON: Mike wrote this, quite rightly, as a gentle, acoustic love song. I thought that a piano and some strings would help bring out the emotion in the song, and then of course we were fortunate to have the immense talent of Jack on guitar to add that “something special” like he always does.
Ron, how do you decide on instrumentation and the arrangements?
RON: No two are ever the same. I get ideas in my head as I’m listening to the “bare bones” versions. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Fortunately for me, mostly it does work and I’m able to convey what I hear in my head to the finished arrangement.
Of course, Mike plays a very big part in the musical arrangements, too. Generally, with a song he’s written, he points me in the right direction. He comes up with some great ideas, like the ukulele part on “Captains of Industry”.
Of the remaining songs, “If I’d Only Known,” “Son & Heir” and “Finding My Destiny” which was the hardest to craft and why?
RON: I think Mike would probably agree that most of the songs virtually wrote themselves for this show. The story is that good that you couldn’t fail to be inspired by it.
“If I’d Only Known” was not the hardest, but the one I got most pleasure from writing. It’s such a poignant moment in the story, when George and Violette both realize what might have been. I wanted to write a real, Broadway type show tune, the kind you’d hear in “Sunset Boulevard” or “Les Miserables”. I knew I couldn’t hope to reach those heights, but I was determined to go for it anyway, and I was pleased with the result.
Where will the show be performed?
RON: We have a show confirmed at Unity Hall in New London, the home of “Friday Night Folk” for Dec. 8.
We’re also lining up shows at The Katharine Hepburn Theater in Old Saybrook and The Granite Theater in Westerly. The dates of those shows are yet to be finalized, but we’re hoping for some time in the fall.
How are you working to publicize the show?
MIKE: We’re posting a new song every week or so on our “Crossing: The Musical” Soundcloud page and linking to that from the Maggie’s Guitar and Crossing Facebook webpages. We’ll reach a couple of hundred people that way, but to tell the truth, Facebook is becoming so saturated, its value as a marketing medium is a little questionable, I think.
Beyond social media, we have been playing some of the songs in public here and there, at fund-raisers and such. That fact that we’re working on a musical has created a surprising amount of word-of-mouth interest.
What is the biggest challenge in working as a team?
RON: Mike Bailey? Can’t stand the guy!
No, seriously, it’s always a pleasure to work with someone as talented as Mike. We’re mostly on the same page, so much so that quite often we both come up with the same idea simultaneously. We have a kind of telepathy.
And true to form, this singer-songwriter and accomplished guitarist is plying strings and vocals, with solid accompaniment, in a way reminiscent of his 2012 EP, “U.S. 50” – yet taking the stripped-back acoustic sound and poetic messages to another level.
Whether it’s the haunting metal body Dobro resonator and softly swishing cymbals in “River” or the driving, rapid-fire strum, mixed with a steady beat and alternating time changes in “Straight to the Top,” songwriter John Fries combines guitar lovers’ acrobatics with intimate, frank lyrics and a voice both powerful and raw.
I remember when I first heard Fries’ signature song, “Technicolor You.” Immediately loved the syncopated rhythm, the sweet lover’s apostrophe, and that voice – so natural, gravelly, and resonant. That was 2012. Now, five years later, there is an added urgency to the guitar work, particularly evident in his use of three different types of resonators, and underscored by solid drumming, piano and supporting vocals.
There’s urgency in the writing, too.
“If you’re living in the past, you can forget about your future,” he sings in “Friend.” Whether he’s addressing someone else or talking to himself, as songwriters like to do, the message is the same: “Months and months become years and years/ Without a change is your greatest fear.”
Get on with life, he seems to say. And he does – taking us into other lives and places on other tracks.
“On the Inside,” a quick foray into the worlds of love and friendship, is a poignant portrait. Exactly who the song is about isn’t clear, but what really matters is that this person is important to the singer, who is trying to “make some sense” of what he feels. “Everybody knows how your story’s going to end,” he sings, interested and distancing himself at the same time from someone “stuck in your own mind/drowning in the sands of time.”
On the third track, guitar licks hammer mercilessly as a character who “Can’t Be Satisfied” moans to a woman that he’s got trouble on his mind. A conflicted, timeless, lament, sympathetic in its urgency, with an upbeat tempo that belies the angst.
It’s a good choice to end with “River,” a masterful tonic for “circumstances you cannot change.” His words focus on misleading promises and pain, the scene a desperate one. “Put your best foot forward,” he sings, “straight into your grave,/ tumbling backwards to an uncertain end …/ like a river … /picking up the loose ends and washing them away.” Fries’ voice is softer here, tender. He understands misleading promises and pain, making his art bend to reflect its influence.
The entire collection is a gentle embrace of the listener in songs riddled with a common man’s themes, sophisticated instrumentation, and a soul searching for – and finding – empathy and insight.
Here, then, is a taste, in his own words, of what drives John Fries:
Q: Does the music come first for you or the lyrics?
Almost all of the time it’s music first or a combination of music & vocal melody first. Q: Straight to the top is quintessentially you! Musically. Where did the idea for this song come from?
Lol thanks, that was a song that took a while to sink in for everyone in the band at the time…. For me this one is classic R&B. I’ve always loved this type of music and this song is my best shot at it! Q: Who’s accompanying your guitar and vocals?
Corina Malbaurn: Bass & backing vocals
Ben LaRose: Drums & backing vocals
Eric Michael Lichter: Piano Q: How long has it been since your last EP? What would you like your fans to know about what’s different this time around?
The last EP I released was “US 50” back in 2012. This one is quite a bit different in that it’s 100 percent acoustic and is largely live in the studio. Where there are overdubs, we tried to keep them to a minimum. Q: Are you performing this EP? When and where?
I actually don’t play out any more, my time these days is focussed on my two kids. With that said I may make a comeback soon…. we’ll see! Q: Who’s your favorite songwriter? Why?
That’s tough. To be honest, I like such a wide range of music; there’s no way I could pick one single artist. I try to listen to as many different genres as I can.
In any given week I could go from listening to Eric Clapton to The Black Crowes or D’angelo to the Allman Brothers or A Tribe Called Quest to Martin Sexton.
Last week I was on a Buena Vista Social Club kick.
So I really do love to mix it up!
To learn more about this artist or buy “John Fries: Unreleased Acoustic EP” visit:
Possessions. In music, they own you. But not in the way you might think.
Which is why, this summer, I embraced a faulty instrument and let go of a high-end sound system. It’s all about getting back to my roots as a songwriter.
In college, circa 1979, I ponied up $100 for a Yamaha acoustic guitar with a dynamic range whose voicing carried richly: no electronic boost required.
In 2012, after a layoff, having stowed away the Yamaha in favor of a stunning electric acoustic Ovation, and after a summer spent running an open mic hosted through the generosity of a local business owner, I had visions of more gigs and ponied up a $1,000 for a hand-picked sound system with a Behringer mixer, Alto speakers and Sennheiser and Shure mics.
Life has a way of disrupting the best of plans. That layoff forced me to take a job in Providence, downsize from a house in New London to an apartment in Pawtucket, and stow my sound system in a closet in my partner’s home back in Connecticut.
Meanwhile, I kept the trusty old Yamaha in its case, taking it out rarely and noticing that the action was so high it was nearly impossible to play.
I eased this spring into a new, though short-lived career as a full-time freelance writer, living with my partner near Hartford, the Providence job a distant memory, and no full-time work on the horizon. And I started to think about selling the sound system. Not just for the money, which I sorely needed, but because it deserved to be used, and apart from attending a few open mics here and there as a guest, I didn’t see myself making use of it long-term.
At about the same time, I took the Yamaha to a local repairman, who said the laminate top and high action made the guitar virtually worthless, though I could spend $60 to adjust the nut and saddle. The neck was another matter altogether, and the expense would cost more than the guitar was worth.
After talking to a second craftsman, though, I made an important change: I removed the medium strings that were pressuring the neck and put light gauge strings on it.
That guitar has never sounded fuller! And while the action is imperfect, it is manageable, especially with the help of a capo.
I wasn’t even thinking about the sound system, until one day, on Facebook, I noticed a young, talented fellow songwriter mentioning how she had to borrow a sound system for her last gig. A few instant messages later, she was planning to come check out my sound system and see if she wanted to buy it.
I set it up with care that night, and true to form, it took only a few minutes, it’s that lovely and well put together. “House of the Rising Sun.” My own anthem, “Through It All.” And for my partner, Lee, “Come Back.” I played and played and got that out of my system.
Kala Farnham came to our house, sang and played a song on my guitar, played with the mixer and listened to me play, then hooked her keyboard up to it. That’s all it took and she was ready to buy, discounted, the equipment I had so eagerly bought four years ago. We loaded it carefully into her car.
“I hope you get good use out of it,” I said.
“I’ll run it into the ground,” she said.
I knew my beloved, if underused, sound system was in good hands.
As for me, far from giving up music, I have placed the Yamaha in a guitar stand beside the Ovation in a small study Lee has dubbed the music room. I pick it up often.
A late-comer to songwriting and even later to performing, with a carefully crafted CD now dated circa 2010, I am in transition. I have a great deal of unrecorded material, some of which is worthy of an audience beyond SoundCloud and ReverbNation. I may next, now that I have a full-time job in Hartford, plan to invest again — in ProTools or whatever recording equipment would allow me to share another CD or two with my fans.
But for now, I have a wonderful electronic acoustic guitar for performances out, and my trusty, lilting, sweet Yamaha to write music on. Truth be told, I’ve used the “good” guitar for far too many run-of-the-mill activities and it needs to be babied more. But I’m not parting with either one.
(I did hang onto that Shure mic. You never can tell, once I adjust to my new job, when it might come in handy. I like to, as they say, keep a hand in.)