Ray Mason's sneaker rock
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, July 11, 2002) -- On his great new album, “Three Dollar Man” (Captivating Music), Ray Mason sings an ode to his favorite piece of furniture. “Foot-rest, so true. Foot-rest, I’m always on you.”

Mason, who performs on Friday night at 9 at Red in Pittsfield, shares more than a little with that utterly reliable piece of furniture. For one, he’s always there, so much so that it’s easy to take him for granted. The Pioneer Valley-based pop-rock singer-songwriter has been churning out his catchy confections for the last quarter-century, entertaining the local bar crowd all the while with his down-home, t-shirt, jeans and sneakers approach and quirky sensibility.

But like that foot-rest, which can be used as a table, a stool, a seat or an ottoman, Mason is versatile and multitalented. Take the wide range of music on the 10 songs on “Three Dollar Man.” Each one is a potential hit (well, not on contemporary hit radio, but on my CD player, for sure), and each one comes from a different musical place. The longest track here is the Todd Rundgren-like title track, clocking in at 3:17. Everything else is under three minutes. “Sid Fargus” conjures up Neil Young and Crazy Horse; “Someone I Can’t Get Over” boasts some very Steely Dan-ish pop-funk.

But it could be Mason’s sly wit that makes “Three Dollar Man” one of the freshest collections of original roots-influenced pop you’ll hear this year. “You’ll Never Play Here Again” is Mason’s humorous answer to all the nightmarish club owners he’s had to deal with over the years (contrast it with Graham Parker’s recent, vitriolic take on the same subject, “I’ll Never Play Jacksonville Again”). But it’s Mason’s ability to make a British Invasion-style pop-rock song out of lines like “Some ask why do you stay/Some ask why don’t you go … I’ve got a good dentist,” that makes him the utterly unique, original talent that he is – and not just a piece of shoe-gazing furniture.

Kenny Aronoff

While Stockbridge native and superstar rock drummer Kenny Aronoff gained his initial stellar reputation in the service of John Mellencamp, when the midwestern rocker climbed his way to fame powered in large part by Aronoff’s distinctive, hard-hitting sound, Aronoff has long since transcended his identity as Mellencamp’s drummer. For one, he has worked as a freelancer for a who’s who of rock and pop royalty, including Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Mick Jagger, Smashing Pumpkins, John Fogerty, Joe Cocker, Bonnie Raitt, Sheryl Crow, Elton John, Indigo Girls, Rod Stewart, Jon Bon Jovi, Iggy Pop, Bob Seger, and B.B. King.

But since 1995, Aronoff’s steadiest gig has been working with Melissa Etheridge in concert and on record. In a recent interview, Aronoff – who’ll be banging the skins behind Etheridge at the Saratoga (N.Y.) Performing Arts Center on Sunday -- noted that “time flies when you love your lead singer.”

“Besides working very hard like John did when I was with him, Melissa gives a lot of love to her audiences, her band and crew,” said Aronoff, “and therefore it’s a great environment to be in.

“She is amazing to work for as a performer and a person on and off the stage. I love her. She rocks.”

French Kicks’ new New York rock

There’s a revolution brewing on the New York City rock scene that could soon do for pop music what Seattle did about a decade ago – and not a moment too soon, judging from the moribund state of the recording industry. The best of the new New York bands, like the Strokes, are building on the city’s longstanding tradition of street-savvy punk music with roots in the Velvet Underground, grafting onto pared-down guitar-rock a new-wavish pop sensibility and a Talking Heads-style, artsy intelligence.

The Frenck Kicks’s new album, “One Time Bells” (Star Time), fits right in with this movement, and could be one of the surprise hits of the new, New York rock wave, should it ever hit big. “When You Heard You” is driven by honking guitars and a funky bass line out of the Police, while “Down You” boasts jagged piano harmonics and a bouncy, carnival-like feel out of the Kinks. And “Close to Modern” is a smooth bit of garage-soul.

The Frenck Kicks aren’t a retro-act by any means, however. “Crying Just for Show” suggests they’re big fans of recent Radiohead, but more importantly, the group blends all its influences into a terrific sound all its own, a sound that could come to define the decade ahead. The good news is it’s a lot less dismal than Seattle grunge. French Kicks are at Club Helsinki (528-3394) on Friday night.

Backstage bits

Be sure to check out the drummer in Amy Fairchild’s band when the soulful pop-rock singer-songwriter sensation returns to Club Helsinki next Wednesday, July 17. This time out, the guy banging the skins will be none other than Dave Mattacks, the veteran folk-rock drummer whose resume includes membership in English folk-rock outfits Fairport Convention and Jethro Tull and gigs with Paul McCartney and Elton John.

Look for James Taylor to debut a few new songs off his upcoming album, “October Road,” due out on August 13, when he performs with the Boston Pops at Tanglewood next Wednesday. Likely candidates are “On the 4th of July,” “Mean Old Man” and “Caroline I See You.”


“Small Steps” (Interlock)

This interracial, rap/groove ensemble – “the Lewis and Clark of Minnesota hip-hop” -- is distinguished not the least bit by the fact that they play all their music live on conventional musical instruments, including keyboards, guitars, flute, bass and drums. The result makes for a more fluid funk than is typical in hip-hop, with rappers Felix and Muad’dib bouncing their fleet, talk-sung wordplay off of swinging rhythms laid down by drummer Peter Leggett and Williamstown native Sean McPherson’s phat bass. The group’s jazzy, positive-minded rock-rap psychedelia owes as much to Miles Davis’s “Bitches Brew” as to the Roots.[7/7/02]

David Bowie

“Heathen” (ISO/Columbia)

No one does apocalyptic angst like David Bowie. And if there ever were a time to luxuriate in some world-weary, apocalpytic angst, it’s now. Bowie doesn’t disappoint with his latest, a return of sorts to the cool, icy Bowie of “Low” and “Heroes” with some vintage “Young Americans”-style soul and even a few glam-rock ballads. After recent forays into grunge and electronica, the soul-crooner from another planet is back, and he hasn’t sounded this timely or significant in nearly 20 years. [7/7/02]

Julia Fordham

“Concrete Love” (Vanguard)

British folk-pop singer-songwriter Julia Fordham has a gorgeous, rich, soulful voice, which soars without fuss from alto to soprano. Her voice combines the duskiness of Joan Armatrading, the sensuality of Sade, and the glistening, sometimes icy quality of Joni Mitchell. Mitchell’s producer Larry Klein is on board here, and he has assembled an all-star cast including Billy Preston, backup vocalists from Was (Not Was), and duet partners India Arie and Joe Henry. But none of them overwhelm Fordham – they couldn’t, as that voice is unstoppable on an album tailor-made for romantic candlelit evenings. [7/14/02]

Julia Fordham performs at the Iron Horse in Northampton on Sunday, July 14.

David Broza

“Painted Postcard” (Rounder)

For over 20 years, Israeli-born David Broza has been recording and performing as an international folk bard, putting the words of poets living and dead from Israel, Spain, America and elsewhere to his unique blend of world folk, pop and rock music, not unlike that of other world-minded artists like Sting and Peter Gabriel. Whether he’s singing in Spanish, English or Hebrew, Broza is an affecting vocalist, and his guitar’s nylon-strings give his material a classical/flamenco feel. This CD collects 14 of the best songs from his English- and Hebrew-language albums from the past 15 years (although unaccountably the liner notes don’t say which albums they come from), and thus serves as a great introduction for those who haven’t yet made his acquaintance. [7/14/02]

Radio Rogovoy

Another in our series of periodic tallies of the most-played recordings -- most new, some old – on our imaginary radio station:

1. David Bowie, “Heathen” (ISO/Columbia)
2. Bang on a Can, “Renegade Heaven” (Cantaloupe)
3. Ray Mason, “Three Dollar Man” (Captivating Music)
4. Shea Seger, “The May Street Project” (RCA)
5. Elvis Costello, “When I Was Cruel” (Island)
6. Jen Chapin/Stephan Crump, “Open Wide” (Purple Chair Music)
7. Shannon McNally, “Jukebox Sparrows” (Capitol)
8. Ali Hassan Kuban, “The Rough Guide to Ali Hassan Kuban” (RGNET)
9. Gogol Bordello, “Voi-La Intruder” (Rubric)
10. Rosey, “Dirty Child” (Island)

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on July 11, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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