Melodrome and Merenda mix music and politics
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., November 19, 2003) – Politics and music can be a dicey mix. It’s easy for one to imbalance the other – the music rendering the politics as mush, or the politics overriding the sense of enjoyment necessary for a song to get across – potentially making for artistic disaster.

But when the two are well-balanced – when the writing is smart or witty, and when the music supports or is equal to the politics (think of The Clash or early Bob Dylan) – there’s nothing to equal a good protest song.

In the wake of the Iraq war, there have been lots of musical moans and groans of protest, but few on the level of, say, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s “Ohio” or Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son.”

New and upcoming efforts by the Berkshires’ own Melodrome and the Hudson Valley’s Michael Merenda, however, are strong enough musically and suggestive enough lyrically so that even if you aren’t in full agreement with their political sensibilities you can appreciate the conviction and the solid craft that informs them.

Like the group’s previous efforts, Melodrome’s six-song EP, Play America (Soultube) is propelled by lead singer-songwriter Robby Baier’s soulful, insinuating vocals and incessantly funky in the mode of recent U2 and 1970s-era Rolling Stones and David Bowie. And from the sound of four tracks from his forthcoming, full-length CD, Election Day (Humble Abode), Merenda – a member of folk-roots trio The Mammals – falls squarely in the literate, folk-protest tradition of Woody Guthrie, Dylan and Dan Bern.

What both Merenda and Baier share is the ability to get beyond their own particular points of view – beyond their own egos, really -- to reflect wider perspectives, even ones they don’t necessarily agree with. There’s nothing particularly original about this – it’s called irony, and it’s an ancient literary tool. But it’s also a tool that has become rusty from disuse in contemporary music, and it’s terrific to see young artists pick it up again, dust it off, and use it to its fullest advantage.

“We wanted to give people another viewpoint -- something other than what they
are told to believe by the media,” says Baier about the songs on “Play America.” What better way to do that than to take the words of a so-called patriot and put them into the mouth of a war protester, as he does in the EP’s lead track, “Buddha, Pizza, Jesus,” when he sings, “You should be happy, don’t complain, it’s not so bad/This is America, my friend, you should be glad.”

Baier and Merenda are linchpins of a cross-cultural, interdisciplinary, multi-media extravaganza on Saturday night at La Choza Cantina (413-448-6100) in Pittsfield, where they will perform as part of Rapture International Music Project’s “Peace One Night” event. Starting at 9, the party will include electronic music spun by deejays including DJ Genti and TreviB. Rapture’s mission is partly about breaking down musical borders, and members of Melodrome as well as Merenda’s band, the Voltage Box, will perform along with the DJs, as will other local musicians from groups including Gaia Roots and Wakarusa.

In keeping with the theme of the music, the evening will also promote awareness about ”Peace One Day,” an effort by the United Nations and various non-governmental organizations to achieve a global cease-fire each year on September 21. Representatives of the movement will be on hand at the event.

Rapture is the brainchild of Mariposa Oxenberg Manoli, a percussionist who lives in West Stockbridge and who works with Maxine Wynne of the United Kingdom. For more information, visit

Robin O’Herin’s ‘holy blues’

There was historically a close relationship between blues and spiritual music, and Robin O’Herin makes the connection tangible on The Road Home, her second CD, which she celebrates on Saturday with a release party at the Berkshire Blues Café (243-0062) in South Lee at 3. O’Herin, of Lee, calls the music that straddles the blues/gospel divide “holy blues,” as good a term as any for the rootsy but serene music on her second CD, the follow-up to her debut, Red, White and Blues. The all-acoustic CD is mostly an intimate solo affair featuring O’Herin’s deft guitar playing and soulful vocals, but a few Berkshire musicians lend a hand, including pianist Peter Schneider, bassist Dan Broad, percussionist Terry Hall and vocalists Vikki True, Lisa Kantor and LuAnn Herring.

Joan Marks sings jazz

For the last 25 years Joan Marks has been best known locally as the vocalist with the Steve Murray Band. With the release of her debut CD as a leader, Wish You Were Here, Marks, of Williamstown, will undoubtedly make a name for herself. The recording features 15 selections, mostly standards by the likes of the Gershwins (“Someone to Watch Over Me”), Cole Porter (“Night and Day”), Harold Arlen (“A Sleepin’ Bee”), and Rodgers and Hammerstein (“Some Enchanted Evening”), with tasteful accompaniment by Murray on bass as well as Bob Shepherd on keyboard and Dick DiNicola on drums.

But this is the singer’s album, and her dramatic phrasing and dynamism betrays her background in musical theater in Chicago. Marks knows how to tell a story in song, and she does so with a rich, expressive instrument that at times recalls Barbra Streisand’s. Catch her every Thursday at 7 at Jae’s Inn in North Adams, where she performs with Murray and Shepherd.

On the subject of women jazz singers, the Hudson Valley’s Teri Roiger brings her ensemble to the Castle Street Café (413-528-5244) on Saturday in a show featuring works by Duke Ellington collaborator Billy Strayhorn. And Cassandra Wilson, who last appeared in the region at the Tanglewood Jazz Festival, returns on Saturday night when she performs at the Egg (518-473-1845) in Albany at 8. Wilson’s recent album, Glamoured (Blue Note), features her trademark mix of original compositions and adventurous covers of other songwriters’ works, this time including songs by Muddy Waters, Bob Dylan, Sting, Abbey Lincoln and Willie Nelson.

Also coming to the Egg is guitar virtuoso and master songwriter Bruce Cockburn, who performs on Tuesday at 7:30. Cockburn’s most recent album, You’ve Never Seen Anything (Rounder), is a dark, primitive-folk effort reflecting his dim view of recent world events.

Cobham goes straight ahead

Billy Cobham is best known as a jazz-fusion drummer for his work with Miles
Davis and the Mahavishnu Orchestra, but on his latest CD, The Art of Three (BlowItHard), Cobham shows that he can play straight-ahead with the best of them – literally the best of them, as the CD teams Cobham with pianist Kenny Barron and bassist Ron Carter. On his current tour – which comes to the Van Dyck (518-381-1111) in Schenectady on Friday and Saturday at 7 and 9:30 -- Cobham expands his project into the “Art of Five,” teaming up with pianist Julian Joseph, saxophonist Donald Harrison, bassist Orlando le Fleming, and trumpeter Guy Barker.

Contact info: Joan Marks, 413-441-9189; Van Dyck, 518-381-1111; La Choza Cantina, 413-448-6100; Jae’s Inn, 413-664-0100; Castle Street Café, 413-528-5244; The Egg, 518-473-1845; Berkshire Blues Café 413-243-0062.

[This column originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on November 21, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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