“Magic Treason Rough Mix,” newly added to this website’s “Sampler,” is in fact the most finished version ever — with guitarist Mike Ball accompanying me and Arlene Wow producing.
This version has been hiding in my email archives for a couple of years, one of the few I had the joy of recording with Arlene at the helm.
The song is special to me, emerging from a crush gone bad. It’s a highly stylized rendition that fictionalizes a woman I could not get out of my head or heart, but could not work into my life, either. It is not real, but rather a dramatized portrait of someone with whom I grew disenchanted and came to mistrust. But mostly, it is a character many of us, man or woman, have known and felt betrayed by.
Yet, she was the inspiration for many a song. And so, I offer this with gratitude and yes, with love for the journey.
Thanks for listening, and please: let me know what you think!
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.