Underbelly: Making old-time new
by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., May 26, 2003) – The three members of Underbelly – which comes to Club Helsinki (413-528-3394) in Great Barrington on Sunday, June 8 -- make old-time music new with their infusion of cross-cultural and contemporary influences. A supergroup of New England talent, the Northampton based group consists of Michael Daves on guitar and mandolin, Peter Siegel on banjo, mandolin and guitar, and Alicia Jo Rabins on fiddle. All the members sing, and all are composers in addition to folk musicians mining traditions as disparate as Appalachian, Quebecois, funk, blues, Gypsy and klezmer.
Rabins was a founding member of trad-rad folk group The Mammals, and Daves is a member of Inner Orchestra, the Pioneer Valley’s answer to Tower of Power. In addition to being a noted singer-songwriter on his own, Siegel performs with the Beverwyck String Band. In Underbelly, the three explore traditional folk and string band music with the dedication of scholars and with the freewheeling spirit of punks.

Bobby Sweet on the border

Like his two previous recordings, Bobby Sweet’s new CD, Love on the Border, is chock full of catchy country songs – real country-pop music with fiddles and banjos and harmonies. One of the Berkshires’ best songwriters, Sweet – who celebrates the release of his new CD with a concert-party at Bucksteep Manor (413-623-5535) in the town of Washington on June 7 at 9 – focuses more on personal concerns on “Love on the Border,” whether he’s singing about found love, lost love or love of music, as on the frisky “Touching Guitars” and “Some Song.”
With its hint of a tango rhythm, the accordion-flecked title track shows the influence of the time Sweet has spent in Argentina recently, and has fun with the metaphor of border guards and emotional resistance – a perfect subject for a tango. Sweet stretches musically on “Time Off,” a bluesy jazz number that’s a distant cousin to “St. James Infirmary,” with a trio arrangement featuring pianist Peter Schneider and bassist Richard Downs.
Helping Sweet out on his latest, mostly-unplugged effort is an all-star cast of Berkshire musical talent including Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion, Fran Mandeville and JoAnne Redding, banjoist Andy Gordon, and longtime bandmates Rick Leab, Pete Adams, Jody Lampro and Dave Lincoln. Sweet is a multiple instrumental threat on guitar, bass, violin, organ, accordion and percussion, and he also handled production and engineering chores at Derek Studios in Dalton, where he works as an engineer.
In addition to his Bucksteep Manor show, which will feature a full band and many of the musicians who appear on the new CD, Sweet will be performing locally at the Dream Away Lodge in Becket on June 20 at 9 with Pete Adams and Rick Leab, and at the ITAM Lodge in Pittsfield with on June 29 at 7 with the Dooley Austin Band.

Living in harmony

Valerie and Walter Crockett have been harmonizing on stage and in real life for over a quarter century. In the late-‘70s they performed as Crockett, a folk-rock band, and after a brief hiatus to raise children, they picked up where they left off in the mid-‘90s as Valerie and Walter Crockett and the Oxymorons, a mostly-acoustic, family-friendly group based in Worcester that plays original folk, country and Americana-style songs.
The group – which performs at the Common Grounds Coffee House (413-499-0866) at the First United Methodist Church in Pittsfield on June 7 at 8 – released its latest album, “Emily’s Angel,” last year. The title track tells the surprising yet true story about the kind heart of a real-life country music superstar, but I won’t spoil the surprise for those planning on attending the show by revealing who it is. Incidentally, fans of the mid-‘70s Berkshire band Clean Living might remember Walter Crockett as lead guitarist for Zonkaraz, which often performed with Clean Living. The Crocketts pay tribute to those days by performing a few songs written by Clean Living lead singer Norman Schell.

Critic’s picks

Boston-based pop-rock band Chauncey – at Club Helsinki tonight at 8:30 – garnered the Best Rock Album honors from Boston Magazine last year for the group’s self-titled debut, whose muscular, melodic pop-rock and glam guitars have drawn well-deserved comparisons to early Radiohead and the Beatles…. Former Grateful Dead keyboardist Vince Welnick fronts his Gent Treadly Band at Helsinki on Friday night…. New York funk band Adatis, fronted by Amy Douglas, lays down the groove at La Cocina in Pittsfield on Friday night …. Bernice Lewis and Bob Thistle, two of Berkshires’ finest singer-songwriters, team up for a concert to benefit the Hoosic River Watershed at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Williamstown on Friday at 7:30….. Margot Leverett, the world’s greatest living exponent of the classic klezmer clarinet sound of Dave Tarras and Naftule Brandwein, takes the shtetl to “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” territory with the Klezmer Mountain Boys, at Helsinki on Saturday night…. Dutch avant-big band Willem Breuker Kollektief is at the Iron Horse in Northampton on Monday.

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on May 29, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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