Monthly Archives: January 2013

To B or Not to B? Worcester’s Big Eyed Rabbit Won’t Be Pinned Down By Titles

By Steven King

by Matt Robert
photo by Steven King
Originally appeared in the January 31, 2013 Worcester Magazine

“I’m not going to say the B word,” says guitarist/vocalist Jon Short about Big Eyed Rabbit, the trio he shares with bassist Jeff Burch and drummer Duncan Arsenault. Listeners may be tempted to categorize them under that genre that starts with a B and even draw comparisons to that two-piece Akron band named after the ebony part of a piano and that Detroit duet named after a stripe.
The band, which plays a bill with local jam outfit WHAT at Green Street’s Lucky Dog Music Hall on Saturday, February 9, is protective of its identity and careful about how they are cast in print. But Big Eyed Rabbit, which does draw at least some of its form from the conventions of that music, is only blues the way the Black Keys are blues, or Medeski, Martin and Wood or Dub Apocalypse are jazz. Then again, it’s hard to play guitar-based music in America with the 20th century right in the rearview mirror without knowingly or unwittingly paying homage to blues.
Titles aside, though, Big Eyed Rabbit plays a loud, joyful and visceral stew of John Lee Hooker groove built on Jeff’s deep bass and Duncan’s swinging, forceful drumming, underpinning Jon’s analog tube amp growl, rife with open-note harmonics and reliable alternating thumb-picked bass notes, while he sings about matters of love or relationship entanglements.
The story is in the behind-the-scenes aspects of the band: the vetting process that brought this particular lineup together, the approach to the stage act and recording, and a general philosophy that, though backed by unshakable conviction on the part of the band members, can nevertheless be difficult to articulate.
“I wanted to be able to stand up and play electric and stretch out,” says Jon, “but I needed my thumb to be able to be where it needed to be and I needed to find the kick drum.”
The band’s origin goes back 10 years to when Jon and Jeff played together in a “funk-jazz” group called The Late Messengers. “I pretended that I knew how to play keyboards with [Jeff] on bass it worked out all right,” says Jon.
The rest of the story happened at The Dive Bar, where Duncan’s Thursday night series became sort of a Minton’s Playhouse for Worcester, bringing together a growing circle of varied players in a low-risk cauldron that patiently produced numerous lineups, several of which have since been concretized into stable bands.

“Jon came to do many Thursdays,” says Duncan, “and … sometimes Jeff would play bass … and it was becoming apparent, the more we played, that, boy! When Jeff is there, when it’s that combination, something different happens that – you can kind of just tell when a band is sort of clicking.”
“We did a lot of gigs here,” says Jeff, “and even played the Open Road [Festival], I think it was a couple of years ago, and didn’t have a name yet, and then it was even probably a good six months after that that we decided, you know what, we should probably just put a name on it.”

“The thing for me,” says Jon “– when Duncan first called me to come down here to do Thursdays, I said, ‘I’d love to, but no bass player and no rehearsal.’”
“I was sincerely interested in developing that kind of organic relationship with another musician, and that’s one of the things that I felt I had developed with Jeff,” Jon adds. “That was a part of growing those legs back with The Late Messengers … It was about the experience of being there, about playing.”
“I don’t think that we ever really talked about stuff, or that we ever really had to have conversations about stuff,” says Jon, noting the chemistry the three felt when they played together.
“I think the only conversations that I have with Duncan sometimes is, ‘Hey! This song, tonight, that groove that we had, that’s the one,’” adds Jeff. “All of a sudden it clicks and it’s like, ‘Yeah! That’s the one.’”
“That’s essentially the spirit of the Thursdays in the first place,” adds Duncan. “Within the first verse we’ve said enough to each other musically that we know where we’re going to go.”
The band first appeared as Big Eyed Rabbit “at The Lucky Dog the weekend after Scott [Ricciuti] died,” says Duncan, in April of 2012, but Jon says that he knew well before “that these were the guys I wanted to play with. I was set … When I get to play with these guys it’s something else for me. It draws something else out.”
With a gig booked for Vermont’s Tweed River Music Festival for the summer of 2012, Big Eyed Rabbit needed a recording. Pressed for time, they rented The Lucky Dog for a night and brought in friend and engineer Paul Dagnello of the band Huck, who scrambled to rent the best gear he could find. They spent the night cutting essentially live tracks in the empty club, a radical departure in this day of albums produced with the benefit of limitless tracks and editing on digital workstations.
The result is a six-track CD of spirited romps through warm, hugesounding grooves that form a pretty good representation of the band’s live sound: reckless, confident, and youthful, and at once new and fresh and utterly familiar. They aren’t so much looking back or looking forward, but looking around, making use of years of acquisition of a musical catalogue, chops, and ears.

The CD is indicative of the age and experience of these musicians – fulltimers with a lot of collective years in the business, who have brought a lot of high quality music to the local scene and have, through the age-old process of hard work and continued effort, arrived in the same place at the right time to create a shared musical vision that embodies their musical and extra-musical philosophies.
And that’s the kind of relationship anybody can understand.

Catch Big Eyed Rabbit at Lucky Dog Music Hall, 89 Green Street on Saturday, February 9 at 9 p.m.


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Hymns of the Commonwealth: Nat Needle Releases “Worcester Potholes” CD

Article originally appeared in the January 24th Worcester Magazine.
Photos by Steven King

By Matt Robert
There’s local music and there’s local music. Although Nat Needle has only lived in Worcester for a little over 12 years, the New York City native has adopted our city as his home, both as the place to live and raise his children and as the muse for his songwriting.

“I love Worcester and it’s been a great place to raise my kids,” Nat shares over the phone. “And there are many reasons for that, one being the diversity of it – the polyglot nature of it, and then the size, which means there’s always about two degrees of separation, which is pretty neat, and makes it easier to get fun things done.”

Nat has encapsulated his impressions of Worcester and some of its more prominent citizens, as well as a few local hallmarks, including the general condition of its streets, on “Worcester Potholes,” whose release he’ll celebrate at a release party on Thursday, January 31 at Nick’s Bar and Restaurant on Millbury Street.

The disc, which Nat says, “is an expression of my role here as sort of a cultural activist, who is a Worcester booster,” lightly satirizes the heart of the Commonwealth in the tradition of Capital Steps and other politically-themed stage acts with a sound you might liken to Randy Newman or Louis Prima. In fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch to hear Nat Needle on Dean Martin’s Celebrity Roast.

“It’s kind of a musical guidebook to Worcester. It’s meant to be full of in-jokes and resonating experiences for people who live here or who are in touch with the local arts scene or the political scene or just go out to the bars” he says. “It’s also meant to give people who don’t live here a sense of Worcester that is fresh, humorous, new, and loving, even as it pokes fun at things. People will recognize issues that exist in their own town or their own city, for example, like the ‘Princeton Police’ song. I think you experience that somebody who lives in a city going out into the country and getting pulled over. I think that’s a pretty universal experience.”

He has humorous campaign songs about mayors Joe Petty, Joe O’Brien, and Konnie Lukes, Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray, as well as a couple of booster songs for losing campaigners.

In addition, Nat takes aim at local cultural spots like the Collective a Go Go and the Dark World Gallery, responds to a Worcester Magazine column by Chet Williamson about the difficulty of rhyming our fair city’s name, and laments the overwhelming goose crap found in Elm Park.

“The CD,” he says, “is made up of songs [that] probably go back to as early as 2005 and some as recently as 2012.” With as many fluent, sophisticated jazz styles as themes, it all adds up to a fun tour of Worcester, from a slightly deranged perspective.

“The song about Tim Murray [‘Hurry Hurry’], that was actually written for his first lieutenant governor campaign in 2006,” says Nat. “But the other three songs, ‘Konnie Lukes,’ ‘Joe O’Brien’ and ‘Joe Petty,’ there’s been a tradition where, whenever there’s a new mayor inaugurated, I show up with my ukulele and play an original song.”

“I’ve been a professional musician since 1976 when I was 21,” says Nat. Along the way, though, his music has had to play second fiddle to marriage, raising a family, and a job in health and human services. The CD release party on Jan. 31, he says, “is really kind of heralding for me a return to music…[and] sell[ing] CDs, find[ing] piano students, find[ing] paying gigs.” In addition, Nat hopes the exposure will help him “to put together a small ensemble.”

Despite a nasally, facetious voice and jazzy, American Songbook piano-style that will draw comparisons to Randy Newman, Nat says that he “didn’t really hear Randy Newman till my own style had long since been formed,” though he acknowledges that they “had similar influences, people like Fats Waller, Hoagy Carmichael, people who brought the whole idea to jazz that you didn’t have to have a beautiful Bing Crosby voice to sing it.”

“I think that Randy Newman was also influenced by a lot of those same folks – black and white – who took a more raspy or homey approach to their lyrics.” He insists emphatically, though, that he can sing properly. “I actually am able to sing in a Frank Sinatra-style,” he says, “but I don’t unless I’m accompanying somebody or the tune really calls for it.”

His style derived from a childhood in New York City, when his “friends were going to the Fillmore East and [were] into heavy acid rock.” Nat, meanwhile, “was getting tired of my classical training and I needed something to buffer me a little bit from the hyperpaced drugs and sex scene that went along with the music of that time, so I kind of got into Scott Joplin and Fats Waller and swing. Then, I got into stride piano, in general, and started listening to Oscar Peterson, to a lot of other people in New York and who would come to New York,” so that “by the time I was, I think, about 18 years old, I was already kind of into this vintage piano kind of stuff.”

For the CD release party at Nick’s, Nat hopes to start early, “which for Nick’s is 8,” he says, though he’ll “be around at 7 signing CDs.” Nat encourages everybody to come early and eat, and that “everything [on Nick’s menu] is great.” The first show will run until 9:30 or 10 p.m., he says, but that he’ll keep playing “for those who make Thursday part of their weekend,” and he has a number of surprises planned, one of which he shared under duress, was that he’s “going to let people choose themes for songs and possibly a style, if they want Latin or salsa or bossa nova or blues or Madonna, or whatever, and I will make up a song on the spot.”

“The songs are meant to be enjoyable in their own right,” he says, “but also to have a special twist and element of pleasure for people who live here and know Worcester.”

Come hear Nat’s Original Worcester Songbook in the intimate atmosphere of Nick’s, where Nat can let his formidable chops loose on their vintage upright on Thursday, Jan. 31. Admission is free. CDs will be available for purchase for $10. Nick’s Bar, 124 Millbury St.

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The Play’s the Thing: “Taming of the Shrew” and “Cyrano De Bergerac” featured for Clark University’s Traina Shakespeare Week 2013

By Matt Robert
Originally appeared in the January 10, 2013, Worcester Magazine
Dust off your doublets, corsets and codpieces, it’s Traina Shakespeare Week at Clark University.

“I think this is our fourth go-around,” Clark theater professor Gino DiIorio says of the event, which features two public performances, Edmond Rostand’s 1897 biographical portrait, “Cyrano De Bergerac,” on Tuesday, Jan. 15, and William Shakespeare’s 1590’s comedy “The Taming of the Shrew,” on Wednesday, Jan. 16. Both shows begin at 7:30 p.m.

“We thought, the fact that we could get ‘Taming,’ which is a comedy — it’s lots of fun — and a play like ‘Cyrano,’ which you don’t see performed much anymore, that was really great,” says DiIorio.

“Fortunately we have the Traina Shakespeare Fund, an endowment set up by Dick and Polly Traina,” he says. “Dick was president of Clark University for a long time, and Dick and Polly were great friends of the arts, particularly the theater, but also music.” The fund, DiIorio says, “allows us to bring in a classical theater company, preferably Shakespeare, about every two or three years.” During the weeklong residence, the theater company may “give free performances to the Clark community” and “do shows for the University Park Campus School, so the seventh and eighth graders can come and see Shakespeare — all free of charge.”

Local residents benefit, too, according to DiIorio, as Clark offers the two public performances at a cut-rate ticket price of $10 (free to local college students with a valid I.D.).

The Aquila Theatre Company, which originated in London, but presently operates out of New York City, believes in “theatrical utilitarianism,” whose object is to bring theater to the largest possible audience.

“I think it’s for everybody,” says DiIorio. “We’ve brought in actors from the London stage in the past. They’ve been a great asset to Clark.” The benefit, as DiIorio sees it, extends beyond entertainment, and is fundamental to Clark’s educational goals, at both college, as well as high-school and middle-school levels.

To this end, DiIorio notes, “I would say that they are not traditionalists. They try to make this stuff very modern. They do a lot of theater for young audiences, so they are used to adjusting things, so it speaks to a more modern audience. But they also know the verse, too. Very often it’s modern dress and there’s a lot of technical things. We haven’t seen anyone ‘in the ruffles,’ as I would say, in a long time. We might see that with ‘Cyrano.’ We’ll see.”

“I’m pretty certain that ‘Taming’ is modern,” says DiIorio, “but modern in quotes. It’s not like they’re in their jeans.”

DiIorio estimates this to be the fourth Clark Shakespeare Week under the Traina endowment, during which “we’ve brought actors in from the London stage twice.” He says that, as part of the goal of reaching the kids at Clark as well as the University Park Campus School, a 7-12 grade Worcester school founded in 1997 as part of a larger partnership between Clark University and local community-development organizations to reverse the economic and social decline of the neighborhood, “one of these days I’d really like to bring in a [particular] predominantly black company that [performs] the Greeks, and I think that’s especially good, especially for the kids at a school like University Park Campus, because a lot of time they look at the classics and they think, ‘Well, that’s just something that white kids do,’ and nothing could be further from the truth. So, when they get to see actors of color performing the Greeks, performing Shakespeare, it opens up a world to them – they’re going to spark that, too, so that’s a good thing.”

“The Thursday [a.m.] performance is for the [University Park Campus] high school students.” And though the spring semester has not yet begun, in this case, “sometimes [during the residence] they have class visits… [for] Shakespeare instruction,” during which “they can talk about working with the bard, and iambic pentameter and working with the verse and all of that. Sometimes it’s just what is it like to be a working actor on tour,” he says.

“We might do a meet-and-greet with the young actors. It’s good for the young actors to be able to talk to college kids about to head out and this might be one of their first gigs doing something like this.”

“It’s a win-win. It’s a real great experience for us.”

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The Game of Life: Worcester Historical Museum’s History of Toys and Games Exhibit

History is no laughing matter – it’s not all fun and games. Ask any high school history teacher (or student, for that matter).

Or is it?

A new exhibit at the Worcester Historical Museum is a tribute to the history of fun and games. Called Game On!, the collection on display in the Booth Gallery until March 30, 2013, and funded by a grant from the Worcester Arts Council explores a century and a half of toys, from paper dolls and blocks to video games and movie tie-ins.

“The whole point of the exhibit is for people to walk around and be like, “Oh, my goodness! I had those Hot Wheels! I had those toy soldiers! I remember playing Pac Man!” says Vanessa Bumpus, the museum’s exhibit coordinator and designer.

“It’s basically the story of toys and games,” she says. “We highlight some Worcester companies, like the Roy Toy Company and RalphCo, which were manufacturing toys here in Worcester. But then we talk about classic toys like blocks and Legos and rocking horses [that] we have…on loan from…different institutions,…people [and] private collections.”

“We talk about the three big board games manufacturers…Hasboro, Milton Bradley, and Parker Brothers,” says Bumpus. “Then, we have a section on paper dolls, and we have on loan to us the first paper dolls ever printed in America, and a doll called Sandy Gray,” whose unique quality, says Bumpus, is that “her head moves from body to body.”

“We have a Teddy Bear that was owned by [benefactor] Mary Gage Rice from Worcester – one of the original Teddy Bears. We’ve got blocks owned by people from Worcester.” Note cards and placards along the route of the exhibit, according to Bumpus, “talk about the history, too, of checkers, chess and dominoes, and…about Wild West toys – cowboys and Indians and things like that.” In addition, she says, they have toys inspired by television shows and other media, like Tickle Me Elmo, a Bat Mobile, some 007 James Bond villain action figures, a Harry Potter wand on loan from That’s Entertainment!, a Sally Field Flying Nun figurine, a ray gun and a Chewbacca from Star Wars.

From the Worcester Historical Museum’s collection, they have a Johnny Tremain figure made popular by the 1944 Newbery Medal-winning children’s novel “Johnny Tremain” about a young boy growing up in the time of the Revolutionary War written by Esther Forbes from Worcester, which was made into the 1957 Disney film of the same name, notes Bumpus. In addition, word puzzles and traditional puzzles from the museum’s collection will be on view, as well as lots of little toy soldiers, a secondedition Barbie doll, and Hot Wheels.

“The fun thing about the exhibit is that it’s actually set up like a board game,” Bumpus says. “So, as you go from section to section, you pull a card and it tells you where to go next. So there’s nothing chronological about the exhibit; it’s all by chance, as if you were playing a board game.” So drawing a card, she says, could send you to dominoes, or to the rocking horse, or to the play area to play Battleship or Old Maid. The self-guided tour, she says, will take no longer than 45 minutes, if you read every label and take the time to interact with the exhibit.

Bumpus adds that there are also more modern toys on exhibit such as a whole section on video games including old-style Game Boys.

“It’s really about just how toys are generational,” Bumpus says. “While these blocks are maybe from the 1800s, children today still play with blocks. It’s timeless. [And] Legos, while they may not have played with them in the 1920s, they may have played with them with their grandchildren in the ’60s. So, there’s that relation of generational activity.”

“Legos have become so advanced,” she says. “For example, the set we have in the exhibit is [more than] 1,000 pieces – a pirate ship from “Pirates of the Caribbean.” Legos have gone, almost, out of control. You see these sets sometimes, at Target, and in stores, with thousands and thousands of tiny little pieces, 300-page booklets of instructions. How big can these things get?” The response, Bumpus says, is the museum’s contest that encourages kids to use their imagination to recreate something like Worcester’s Union Station or City Hall out of Legos without instructions and using their own imaginations.

“We thought it would be kind of cool,” she says, adding that the contest would show that “you can do almost anything with those things.”

“The whole point of the exhibit is just for people to learn and have fun,” says Bumpus. “It’s not a bunch of dates and things like that. It’s really just about reminiscing and having a good time.”

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