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Posts Tagged ‘music’

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Hello, friends. Somehow it is August, and though we are so many weeks into pandemic life that I have lost count, summer is still summer. We’ve had a stretch of gorgeous hot weather (though we desperately need some rain) and I am soaking up all the pleasures summer has to offer, while I can. Here’s a list:

  • Sea breezes from the harbor through my kitchen window, which makes the heat in my apartment just about bearable.
  • Stone fruits and berries galore: cherries, blackberries, peaches and nectarines, blueberries, raspberries, tiny tart red currants.
  • Amanda’s spicy salsa roja with any chips I can get my hands on.

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  • Morning runs along the harborwalk (the earlier I go, the more shaded it is), watching for white herons and Black-eyed Susans, and the boats on the water.
  • Related: funky tan lines and freckles on my shoulders. (I promise I do wear sunscreen.)
  • Evening yoga in Piers Park, whether we’re sweating or catching a cool breeze.
  • Sliced cucumbers from a friend’s garden with Samira’s spicy muhammara – red pepper spread with walnuts and pomegranate.

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  • Sunflowers, roses and catching up with my florist.
  • Library hold pickup, about once every 10 days.
  • My new-to-me bike, which I’ve dubbed my Wild Irish Rose.
  • The music of I’m With Her, Our Native Daughters and several other groups I heard at Newport last year. (Related: reliving that magic.)
  • Making chilled cucumber soup with dill, basil and Greek yogurt – one of the perks of garden caretaking. (See also: fresh marigolds.)

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  • Smoothies from Eagle Hill Cafe, a newish neighborhood staple run by two friendly women.
  • Revisiting some childhood classics, including Maud Hart Lovelace’s stories.
  • Daylilies, Queen Anne’s lace, beach roses, hydrangea, Rose of Sharon, bee balm, nasturtiums and other wildflowers. The world is lush and green and colorful right now.

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  • Bike rides with my guy – around the Seaport (where he works), over to Cambridge, around Eastie (where I live) or just about anywhere.
  • Discovering new farmers’ markets on the bike. The Harvard farmers’ market has my heart, but I like visiting other ones.
  • Jasmine tea lemonade or iced black tea from (where else?) Darwin’s.

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  • Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski mystery series – my newest obsession.
  • Nicole Gulotta’s #30DayHaikuProject on Instagram, which I’m enjoying.

What small pleasures is summer offering you?

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We’re deep into summer heat and summer reading over here. Here’s what I have been reading:

From the Desk of Zoe Washington, Janae Marks
My friend Kari recommended this middle-grade novel, narrated by aspiring baker Zoe, who begins writing to her incarcerated birth father. She has lots of questions for him, and becomes determined to clear his name. I loved Zoe’s narrative voice and the other characters, especially her grandma. Bonus: it’s set in Boston/Cambridge and contains many references to neighborhoods I know well.

Dead Land, Sara Paretsky
Chicago private eye V.I. Warshawski gets caught up in a tangled case involving two murders, a mass shooting several years before, a plan to redevelop some public lakeshore property, and a mentally ill homeless woman who might hold the keys to all of it. This is Paretsky’s 20th Warshawski novel but the first I’d read; I really enjoyed both the plot and V.I.’s smart, snarky voice.

Infused: Adventures in Tea, Henrietta Lovell
Lovell is the founder of the Rare Tea Company, and this charming memoir chronicles her journeys to source and brew the best teas. Each brief chapter focuses on one tea/location, and they’re packed with travel anecdotes and useful information about all kinds of tea. Found at Three Lives & Co. during my last NYC trip, back in January.

She Come By It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs, Sarah Smarsh
Dolly Parton is indisputably a cultural icon, but there’s more to her than rhinestones and big boobs and twang. Smarsh delves into Parton’s long career, her business empire and her smart-but-subtle feminism, adding anecdotes from her own life that help illuminate Parton’s appeal. I loved Smarsh’s first book, Heartland, and this is a strong follow-up. To review for Shelf Awareness (out Oct. 13).

Not Like the Movies, Kerry Winfrey
Chloe Sanderson is used to taking care of everything: her coffee-shop job, her online business classes, her dad (who has early-onset Alzheimer’s). But since her best friend Annie wrote a rom-com inspired by Chloe’s life, it’s getting harder to hold things together. I loved this sequel to Waiting for Tom Hanks, which forces Chloe to confront her past pain and is also a sweet love story with great characters.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou
A friend lent me this classic memoir, which I’d never read. Angelou chronicles her childhood in Stamps, Arkansas, the trauma of being raped by her mother’s boyfriend in St. Louis, and her eventual move to California. Vivid and arresting, with lots of colorful characters, including Angelou’s family.

Indemnity Only, Sara Paretsky
After enjoying Dead Land, I went back to read V.I. Warshawski’s first adventure. It involves a missing college girl, her murdered boyfriend, crooked union men, insurance fraud and lots of wisecracks. A solid mystery and a good setup for the series.

Links (not affiliate links) are to local bookstores I love: Trident, Brookline Booksmith and Frugal Books.

What are you reading?

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“Nineties country is my love language,” I joked last week, after making yet another reference to a song I loved as a teenager. I grew up on steel guitar and driving fiddle, on ballads meant for long road trips and hot sunny days with the car windows down. I was married for years to a fellow Texan who turned up his nose at country music, but I have never stopped loving it. And this morning, for the third time this week, my running playlist was the Jo Dee Messina Spotify station.

I’d almost forgotten about Messina until a few weeks ago, when I went digging for the lyrics to her 1998 hit single “Stand Beside Me.” Since then, I’ve happily fallen down the rabbit hole of her straight-talking anthems about love and loss and standing up for herself.

Perhaps it’s no surprise: strong southern women are my truth-tellers, which is why I’m loving Mary Chapin Carpenter’s Songs from Home on Instagram these days (and why I was so jazzed to write about Mary Gauthier when she came to Berklee last fall). This pandemic coincides with the one-year anniversary of deciding to leave my marriage, and build a new life for myself, on my own. It has been both scary and exhilarating, and I’ve needed the voices of all my heroines: my real-life girlfriends, the literary women I love, and the singer-songwriters who speak the words written on my heart.

I’m thrilled to have rediscovered Messina as part of this chorus. And as summer approaches, you can sometimes find me pounding down the East Boston Harborwalk humming along to “Bye Bye,” “Heads Carolina, Tails California” or – most especially – “I’m Alright.”

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Paul Robeson

That time
we all heard it,
cool and clear,
cutting across the hot grit of the day.
The major Voice.
The adult Voice
forgoing Rolling River,
forgoing tearful tale of bale and barge
and other symptoms of an old despond.
Warning, in music-words
devout and large,
that we are each other’s
harvest:
we are each other’s
business:
we are each other’s
magnitude and bond.

I’ve been seeing this poem everywhere recently, particularly the last lines: the current crisis has reminded us all how interconnected we are.

April is National Poetry Month, and I am sharing poetry here on Fridays this month, as I do every year. 

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In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing
About the dark times.

—Bertolt Brecht

The thing I miss most about church is the singing.

I enjoy other parts of church: the community, the prayers, communion, a thoughtful sermon. But the thing that often gets me in the door is the chance to lift my voice and sing. And while most of us are quarantined, I’ve been missing the faith communities I love, whose music moves me.

But the singing, like so many aspects of “normal” life, hasn’t disappeared altogether. One of my neighbors is a musician, and I can often hear her singing as she comes in and out the front door, or when I go down to the basement to do laundry. When my guy comes over, he sings as he moves around the kitchen: Motown or gospel or classic R&B. We know some of the same hymns, too, and once in a while we sing one together.

I’ve been streaming the occasional church service during this time, and tuning into the weekly chapel service from ACU, my alma mater. It’s not the same as being present with others to sing, but I like at least hearing other voices. I’ve sat at my kitchen table singing “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” or hummed “In Christ Alone” while I’m heating up lunch. On Good Friday, I streamed the afternoon service from St Aldates, and sang along with “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.”

A couple of weeks ago, ACU put out a call for video submissions of a song all of us know and love: “The Lord Bless You and Keep You.” It’s our unofficial school song: we sing it at graduation, at the end of Sing Song, at the beginning and end of every school year. Our college choir used to sing it at the end of every week, and it was the final piece in every concert we performed. (My ex and I even had the congregation sing it at our wedding.) And now, you can hear more than 500 of us singing it on YouTube.

Whether you are religious or not, I wish this for you, and for all of us during this time: mercy and peace, hope and love. With an a cappella sevenfold Amen.

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What a year, y’all. I say that every year, but this one has brought so much change I didn’t see coming.

Here is my annual non-exhaustive list of what has happened this year. As always, it’s a limited tool, but an interesting one.

In 2019, I have…

  • marked a year (and some change) at Berklee, where I get to write about our students, faculty, alumni and guest artists making music and doing various cool music-adjacent things.
  • moved to East Boston after spending a lot of time there this spring, and falling completely in love.
  • Related: moved into my own apartment for the first time in more than a decade.
  • run several 5Ks, one of them in a cape and one in a Wonder Woman costume.
  • run my first 10K, this summer – a triumph.
  • flown to Texas several times, once to celebrate my grandfather’s 85th birthday with the whole fam.
  • spent hours and hours on the Neponset River trail, the Charles River Esplanade and the East Boston Harborwalk and Greenway, running to my heart’s content.
  • done a lot of yoga, at three different studios: Healing Tree in my old neighborhood, Erin’s shiny new Savin Hill Fitness Studio, and The Point in my new neighborhood.
  • read more than 150 books, and reviewed 58 (I think) for Shelf Awareness. (Still the best.)
  • Related: interviewed nine authors for the Shelf, all of whom were lovely and fascinating.
  • attended my first Newport Folk Festival and had a fabulous time.
  • filled up half a dozen or so journals (and – gasp – I got rid of at least six boxes of old ones when I moved).
  • started going to therapy.
  • gone through a divorce.
  • spent many weekday mornings at Mem Church, and a few Sundays at assorted churches here and there.
  • drunk so many chai lattes, mostly from the Boston Public Library and (of course) Darwin’s.
  • bought and enjoyed countless bouquets of flowers, most of them from my beloved Brattle Square Florist.
  • taken a number of BlueBike rides across town and along the river.
  • spent a weekend in rural Pennsylvania with my friend Christie and her family – so good for the soul.
  • hosted my longtime friend Abigail in my new digs for a glorious long weekend.
  • spent Thanksgiving with my friends Joe and Lauryn, and assorted other friends old and new.
  • taken Phoenix, the sweetest mini golden doodle, on many walks through East Boston. (And cuddled him a lot.)
  • followed thrive as my one little word, to sometimes unexpected places.

What has 2019 looked like for you?

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Singing the season.

One essential part of the holiday season for me is the music.

I know I’m not alone in this: you can hardly walk into a store in December without hearing tinny remixes of classic carols or Mariah Carey belting out “All I Want for Christmas is You.” (I confess to a certain affection for Mariah, mostly because my sister loves that song. She and her college housemates used to slide in their socks down the hallway, singing it at the tops of their lungs.)

I have been steeped in the familiar carols all my life: “O Come All Ye Faithful,” “Away in a Manger,” “Silent Night” and others. We always began Advent services at Brookline with “O Come O Come Emmanuel,” and I know multiple verses of so many carols (including that one) by heart.

Every year, I remember the long-ago rendition of “O Holy Night” sung by two of my dad’s friends at our church in Dallas: a thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices. At least once each December, I wake up humming “Do You Hear What I Hear,” and think of George, who patiently led our church youth choir through it again and again. I have favorite versions of “Go Tell it On the Mountain” (James Taylor) and “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear” (Ella). And I wait all year for the chance to sing anything involving a Gloria.

This year, thanks to some local friends, I joined a carol choir in my neighborhood. We’ve been meeting on Thursday and Sunday nights since early November, gathering at a nearby church or in Peter and Giordana’s dining room. The music we’re singing is an eclectic mix of well-known classics (“The First Noel” and “Adeste Fideles”), slightly lesser-known carols (“Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” and “The Friendly Beasts”), and several pieces I’d never heard of, including one in Latin and one in Spanish.

I’d forgotten how much fun it is to sing with a choir, to hammer out melodies and harmonies one note at a time until it starts to sound something like music. I’ve loved standing between Melanie and Ann-Marie, all of us sipping herbal tea from Giordana’s collection of mugs, as we stumble our way through “Puer Nobis Nascitur” or “A la Nanita Nana.” I’ve been amazed at Anna’s soaring soprano descants and sense of humor, and deeply appreciated Gillian’s handy pitch pipe and her wry, sharp musical commentary. And Peter, who steers this ship every year, has brought us through the last few weeks with skill and grace.

I’ve been humming these tunes as I walk from the train to my office or putter around the apartment, making tea or washing dishes. I’ve also been playing the King’s College Cambridge carols album on repeat, and I went over to the glorious Harvard carol service last week, and sang my heart out standing next to someone I love.

I had wondered if, this year, the music of the season would sound like loss: the loss of several communities where I used to sing. But I am happy to report that the songs are still there, and so is the community. It just looks different. This year, it looks like Elsa’s sweet smile and Rudi’s quiet warmth. It sounds like Joe’s jokes from the back row and Jessica’s able piano playing. It feels like Steve and Chrissy giving rides and making people welcome. It looks like Xeroxed sheet music, and it sounds like joy.

This is not a gift I ever expected, but it is one I’m happy to savor. (And, of course, Mariah is still sneaking in there too, sometimes.)

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y’all come sing

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Several times recently, I’ve found myself in a friend’s living room, paging through a hymnal or flipping through a binder of Christmas-themed sheet music. I’ve joined a holiday choir in my neighborhood, and we’re rehearsing a mixture of classic, well-known carols (O Come O Come Emmanuel, The First Noel, Silent Night) and choral arrangements that are new to me.

I used to do this all the time when I lived in Texas, whether it was a praise team rehearsal early on a Sunday morning (standing in a rough circle in the passageway leading to the baptistry) or gathering in Gail and Calvin’s living room on a Sunday night. More recently, there were many Sunday nights at Ryan and Amy’s, west of Boston, where we’d pull out the hymnals after dinner and sing a few favorite songs.

As a college student, I sang in ACU’s choir, where we performed mostly classical music – some of it complex and demanding. Our kind-eyed director, Dr. Mike, would occasionally grow frustrated when we got sloppy during an opera chorus or failed to hit the harmonies precisely. This was not, he would sometimes remind us, a “y’all come sing.” We were aiming for technique and skill beyond that.

Every Thursday, though, we would end rehearsals for the week with The Lord Bless You and Keep You, sitting on carpeted risers in the rehearsal room that felt like home. Letting the harmonies and the sevenfold Amen wind over and around each other, we let our voices be a benediction to one another before we parted for the weekend. In those moments, we simply had to show up and sing.

I understood Dr. Mike’s point, then and now: we were practicing a craft, learning new techniques and often performing really difficult music. Those pieces took focus and discipline; we couldn’t just open our mouths and sing any old way. But he knew – and so do I – that there is a place for “y’all come sing.”

There’s a place for letting the music be the reason we gather, rather than a polished end in itself. There’s a place for y’all – because where I come from, y’all means everyone. There’s a place for the beauty that comes in missed notes and unfamiliar lyrics and those moments where it all comes together in a way that feels, just a little bit, like grace.

(Photo from the end of this year’s Newport Folk Festival, which was a different kind of “y’all come sing.”)

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Sometimes, for my day job, I get to sit in on clinics, performances or masterclasses and write about them for Berklee’s website. Once in a while, I get a little starstruck: we get some seriously talented folks here.

Last week, I listened to singer-songwriter Mary Gauthier, best known for “Mercy Now,” as she talked to our students about her music, her struggles with addiction, the restaurant she used to run in Boston, and the co-writing work she’s recently done with veterans and their spouses.

I scribbled notes as fast as I could, soaking up every word Gauthier delivered in her raspy Louisiana drawl and welling up when she played “Mercy Now.” She’s a truth-teller, a storyteller, a rough-edged and empathetic presence, and I could have listened to her all afternoon.

If you’d like, you can read the story and see a few photos on Berklee Now.

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newport sign be present

Sunday at Newport Folk: slightly cooler, a little less disorientation, a lot more exhaustion than Friday. I’d moved on Saturday, then had a long morning trying to return my truck and get myself down to Fort Adams. By the time I arrived I was tired and hungry, and frankly not at all sure I wanted to be there.

I bought lunch from one of the food trucks, but I was so tapped out I could hardly enjoy either it or the upbeat set from Lake Street Dive on the main stage. (I do love Rachael Price’s voice, and I got a kick out of seeing Hozier come up and join them for a tune or two. He always looks so moody in his videos, but his grin was a mile wide that day.)

After lunch, though – and a gallon or so of water – the rest of the afternoon definitely improved.

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I wandered over to the Quad stage to catch Our Native Daughters and was absolutely stunned by their vocals, their songwriting, their fiddling and banjo picking and their bold presence. I could listen to Allison Russell sing all day long, and Amythyst Kiah wowed the (mostly white) audience with the anthem “Black Myself.” Serious power there, folks.

After that, I hopped over to hear Molly Tuttle (a Berklee alumna) and Billy Strings in a soulful, rollicking set that included – to my utter surprise – a cover of Cher’s “Believe.” (It worked, surprisingly.) I got some tacos and returned to the same spot, sitting in the grass with my back against the fort wall, to listen to the Milk Carton Kids and take a few deep breaths. I saw them open for someone – maybe Glen Hansard? – at Berklee years ago, so hearing them at Newport felt like coming full circle.

My reason for going back on Sunday – and the day’s real magic – came at the end: the festival’s closing set, known as If I Had a Song. It was a singalong, featuring too many great musicians to count. But the first one was small and green.

kermit the frog Newport stage

Yes, that is Kermit the Frog. And yes, he cracked a few jokes, and invited the crowd to sing along as he performed “The Rainbow Connection.” Pure magic, y’all. (I adore the Muppets and he is my favorite.) Jim James – wearing a fabulous rainbow-cuffed jacket – joined him, but I only had eyes for Kermit and his banjo.

The magic just kept coming after that: Trey Anastasio (and our Berklee students) playing the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows.” Rachael Price and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band giving us all chills with “We Shall Overcome.” Brandi Carlile and Alynda Segarra jamming out on “If I Had a Hammer.” Our Native Daughters leading the crowd in “If You Miss Me at the Back of the Bus.” I was standing in the front area, clapping and grinning and singing my heart out.

One of my favorite parts of Newport was the generous spirit of collaboration – everyone up there, singing together, and having so much fun doing it. Hozier came back out with Lake Street Dive for “Everyday People,” and then he joined Mavis Staples (who looked tiny next to him but brought the house down with her vocal power) for “Eyes on the Prize.”

Robin Pecknold (from Fleet Foxes) came out onstage for “Instant Karma!” and stuck around for “Judy Blue Eyes,” which featured Judy Collins herself in an amazing magenta dress. They sang “Turn, Turn, Turn” together, and then Colin Meloy and the Milk Carton Kids came out to sing “This Land Is Your Land.” (Meloy called it “just as much of a national anthem as the one we’ve got.”)

The last song, which made me cry, featured Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and as many musicians as could cram onto the stage, swaying with their arms around each other, singing “Goodnight Irene.” Our string students joined in on that one too, adding their notes from the back of the stage.

I looked around: sunset light, fans and musicians singing together, banners blowing gently in the breeze. It was a picture-perfect ending to a weekend that embodied the sign at the top of this post: be present, be kind, be open, be together.

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