Making a persuasive case for the Grateful Dead’s melodies

Milagro Saints perform at the Dreamaway Lodge on Friday and Saturday nights

by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., July 3, 2003) --- Probably the least likely thing that comes to mind when you think about the Grateful Dead are their vocal melodies, especially their potential as raw material for a cappella singing. After all, even the members of the Dead themselves frequently went beyond their own songbook to find actual songs to sing, instead of the excuses for extended, neo-hippie jamming that most of their “songs” were in reality.

All the more credit is due therefore to the Persuasions, the legendary a cappella group of over 40 years standing, who a few years ago released “Might as Well: The Persuasions Sing Grateful Dead,” a whole album’s worth of Dead songs performed in their vintage doo-wop stylings. That album came on the heels of “Frankly A Cappella,” a tribute to Frank Zappa, not as unlikely as it might at first seem when you consider that Zappa
gave the group its first record deal in 1968 when he released their debut album on his Straight Records label.

The Persuasions will sing their versions of Grateful Dead songs at Mass MoCA (662-2111) as part of this Saturday’s “Yankee Remix Festival,” a quintuple-bill of innovative musical artists headlined by Jimmie Dale Gilmore, the Austin-based “Buddhist cowboy.” Beginning at 6, the festival also features the Reggae Cowboys, who fuse Jamaican dance rhythms with country and western music; Amusia, a Boston-based modern-rock band featuring the insinuating lead vocals of Ruth Peterson; and Melodrome, the Berkshires’ answer to U2 and the Rolling Stones all in one neat package fronted by Robby Baier.

Milagro Saints: Spiritual harmonies

It’s hard not to think about the way Sandy Denny harmonized with Ian Matthews or Linda Thompson did with Richard Thompson when listening to how the voices of Joyce Bowden and S.D. Ineson flow through and around each other with the grace and beauty of ballet dancers on “Sunday” (Moon Caravan), the terrific third album by the Milagro Saints.

Now based in Raleigh, N.C., the folk-rock group was originally formed in New York City in the mid-‘90s among former members of English rock group the Jack Rubies, Talking Heads offshoot groups including Tom Tom Club and Casual Gods, and the Chicago blues scene. The core of the band consists of singer/songwriter/guitarists Ineson and Bowden, who also plays percussion and clarinet, and keyboardist Lee Kirby, whose Hammond organ lends the group its distinctive, soulful sound.

Soul is all over the aptly-titled “Sunday.” Bowden pulls all stops on “Casa Red,” exploring the bluesy side of her voice, and Ineson channels his inner Al Green as a writer and singer on “Carry Me,” which sails along on a soulful groove. Bowden’s ballad “Good Day for Love” could have been a hit for the Stylistics in the 1970s, and Ineson continues to write spiritually haunting epics like “Waiting,” which packs the drama of the Doors, Patti Smith and the Zombies into two-chords and six-and-a-half minutes.

The Milagro Saints return to the Dream Away Lodge (623-8725) in Becket, where they first charmed an audience in 1998, for a two-night stand this Friday and Saturday nights.

Ellis Paul hitches a ride with Woody Guthrie

In a picture on his most recent album, the words “anti-terror machine” are scrawled across Ellis Paul’s guitar, bringing to mind Woody Guthrie’s famous “This machine kills fascists.” Paul isn’t coy about his identification with Guthrie – he has a portrait of the folksinger tattooed on one arm, and along with Jimmy Lafave, Eliza Gilkyson, Slaid Cleaves, Johnny Irion and Sarah Lee Guthrie, he is a member of the traveling roadshow tribute to Guthrie, “Ribbon Highway, Endless Skyway,” which comes to the Guthrie Center on August 13. And on last year’s “Speed of Trees” (Philo), the folk-pop singer-songwriter recorded his version of “Gods Promise,” an unpublished Guthrie lyric originally inspired by an early 20th-century hymn, that Paul discovered on a search of the Guthrie Archives in New York.

Paul might seem an unlikely Guthrie acolyte. While he occasionally touches on social and political issues, his songs are mostly character portraits and self-consciously poetic, semi-autobiographical anecdotes. Perhaps the way he most resembles Guthrie is in his grassroots orientation and the way he embraces his listeners when he is on the road. Paul makes his Club Helsinki (528-3394) debut on Sunday at 8.

Backstage bits

It’s a small world after all, and it’s getting smaller all the time: The proprietors of Club Helsinki recently received an e-mail from a radio DJ in Helsinki – the one in Finland. It seems the radio host stumbled upon the club’s name while he was reading the liner notes to John Scofield’s new CD, “Up All Night,” some of which was recorded at the Great Barrington nightclub. When the DJ, Mikael Wiik, went to Club Helsinki’s website, he discovered that many of the artists who have been presented by the nightclub are the same ones he regularly plays on his radio program, including Scofield, Soulive, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Olu Dara, Mose Allison and the Holmes Brothers. A food aficionado, Wiik also offered to exchange horseradish recipes with his newfound, like-minded, Finnish-American friends.

The dismal state of independent radio has been much remarked upon lately, but one Berkshirite is doing all he can to combat the homogenization of radio playlists. Since last August, Todd Mack has been hosting The Off the Beat-n-Track Radio Hour, a weekly music show featuring a mix of rock, roots, blues, jazz, acoustic and classical music. Produced at his recording studio, Off the Beat-n-Track, in Southfield, the show airs on WKZE (98.1 FM) out of Sharon, Conn. Beginning today, the program expands from its current one-hour, locals-only format to two hours and will incorporate music by and interviews with artists throughout the country not signed to major labels. The show is expected to go into syndication later this year, and WKZE plans to offer live web streaming in early 2004. For more information on how to get on the program, contact Mack at

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on July 3, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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