I’m A Believer in the Mighty Quinn

(Nov. 12, 2011)

Quinn Sullivan played at Buddy Guy's club, "Legends" in January, 2010. (Photo courtesy of PedalFreak on Flickr).
Quinn Sullivan played at Buddy Guy's club, "Legends" in January, 2010. (Photo courtesy of PedalFreak on Flickr).

I was hoping there wouldn’t be an opening act. I just wanted to see Buddy Guy.

I was in the beer line outside the concert hall when the opening act began playing.  Very interesting  I thought: a female singer with a solid blues band behind her. It was old blues, but for some reason it sounded modern, more contemporary, with a little edgy pop/punk twang to it.

When I first sat down inside the Wilbur Theatre Friday night  I realized there was no female singer. Instead, a young boy was center stage, wailing on an electric guitar and singing free as a bird. His voice had not changed yet.

My first thought was “Wow. This kid can’t be over 15.”

My second thought was “Is he really this good or is it that I just don’t get out that much anymore.”

My next thought was a worry: “I can’t imagine Buddy Guy sounding much better.” This is the type of guitar playing I came for: Buddy’s fast, juicy, notes that come flying out with no boundaries, jettisoning through the air,  making your heart leap and mind soar. But it wasn’t Buddy playing.

I next thought: “This is a phenomenon. I’m witnessing something really special.” And then I remembered that many rock and roll pioneers started young: Little Stevie Wonder; Steve Winwood; and Bob Weir from the Grateful Dead were all young teens when they took to the road.

Between acts, while waiting in a long line for the men’s room, people were talking about little Quinn Sullivan. Some knew more than others. I found out he is only 12 years old and has been playing since he was 3.

He’s from New Bedford, Massachusetts. A friend of Quinn’s dad’s arranged for him to meet Buddy Guy so he could sign his guitar. Buddy asked him to play a few notes and later invited him up on stage to play with him. This was 2007, when Quinn was just 8.  Since then, Buddy has been a huge supporter, taking him on the road to play the opening set and to also close the shows with him.

Highlights and additional thoughts from Friday’s show in Boston:

“Little Wing,” by Jimi Hendrix. (Watch him play this at a show in 2010.)

“Why Does Love Have to Be So Sad?” The Derek and the Dominoes classic suited Sullivan the best. A great song that fit his guitar playing, voice and age. (Watch him play this at a show in Feb. 2011.)

During his entire performance there wasn’t one boring note. At one point, and I forget which song it was, Sullivan stepped outside the guitar solo’s usual notes (maybe they were too easy for him to play) and started moving his fingers up and down the fret like a hyperactive insect moving across a hot patch of asphalt.

Watching Quinn sing and play was reminscent of every teenage boys dream in the 1970s or at least this one’s: How many times did you picture yourself as a rock god playing a wailing guitar and singing at the top of your lungs before an audience of thousands? He’s living every rock and roll kid’s dream.

Members of the audience, who mainly were in their 50s, didn’t know what to make of this kid. I certainly didn’t at first but I quickly realized his age has nothing to do with it. He plays with the emotional ingredients necessary to play the blues: something that defies his years. In short, he sounds phenomenal for any age.

I overheard one gray-haired guy in my row tell another: “Can you imagine what he’ll be like in a few years. He’ll be better than Johnny A.”  “Johnny A?” I interrupted. And I love Johnny A, but added, “He already kicks Johnny A’s ass!”

Footnote: Buddy Guy finally came on and put on a show. The highlight was when he turned up the house lights, left the stage and walked among the audience playing his guitar. We watched from the first balcony (mezzanine) as he disappeared under us. We couldn’t see him, but the music was fantastic: soft, melodic, stirring. A minute later he walked out a door and down the aisle of the first balcony (mezzanine), right past us, to thunderous applause. One of the best shows I’ve seen and the most fun I’ve had in a while.


This Punk Does Country Right

I’m not a big fan of country music, especially not today’s saccharin, mediocre-popped-out variety. But I’m falling in atypical, unrequited love with the new country album by former punk rocker John Doe called, “Country Club.”

Most of the album consists of country covers from the ‘50s and ‘60s: old school country in the tradition of  Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, and Tammy Wynette.  But Doe, along with the Canadian roots rock combo, The Sadies, make these tracks new again as they make them their own.

Fans from Doe’s days with the LA punk band “X” might suspect they’re performed as parodies, but they’re not. They are tributes that make you appreciate the fine songwriting talents and clever lyrics of some of Nashville and Bakersfield’s best.

The album (hear snippets here) kicks off with the upbeat, rockabilly song made popular by Waylon Jennings, “Stop the World and Let Me Off.”  And from there Doe’s booming tenor brings you on a journey of love-lost longing, heartache, and stories of betrayal.

Highlights include the hopeful sorrow of “‘Til I Get It Right,” made famous by Tammy Wynette; “There’s a Fool Such as I,” with high-pitched harmonies from Cindy Wasserman; and the standards, “Help Me Make it Through the Night,” by Kris Kristofferson and a dramatic rendition of “The Night Life,” which starts with a far-away guitar riff reminiscent of the Animal’s version of “House of the Rising Sun.”

More proof that Doe and the Sadies have a fine appreciation for these stalwarts of Americana is found on the four original tracks on this record.

“It Just Dawned on Me,” written by Doe and his former wife and fellow “X” bandmate Exene Cervenka, sounds as if it could be an old Johnny Cash song. The duet on this number, with Doe singing low and Kathleen Edwards singing high, sounds eerily similar to a Johnny Cash/June Carter collaboration.

“Before I Wake,” written by the Sadies, is a wonderful song about hopelessness — “I can’t help you and there’s no helping me,” — where sturdy guitar riffs are the only thing holding up Doe’s and Margaret Good’s downtrodden vocals. You get a sense that both singers would collapse if it wasn’t for the steady backbeat coming from the impeccably tight Sadies.

What I’ve always appreciated about good country music is it’s innate ability to express an emotion in its raw state and its knack for taking you to another place and time. The place this album brings you to and the place John Doe is singing from is a real, country, dive: the type of place you’d like to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon drinking beer and doing shots of whiskey.


Savor This Album Like a Fine Stew

Jen Kearney and the Lost Onion are playing at Toad in Cambridge on Thursday nights in September.
Jen Kearney and the Lost Onion are playing at Toad in Cambridge on Thursday nights in September.

(Sept. 2, 2009)

Lowell musician Jen Kearney‘s latest work blends jazz riffs, latin rhythms, Motown grooves and a rock n’ roll sensibility into one cohesive album that should be savored like a fine meal, not scarfed down like a drive-through cheeseburger at 2 a.m. after a Saturday night out.

“The Year of the Ox” is a concept album where the songs were carefully crafted and then put together in a specific order.

Kearney’s voice has been compared to Stevie Wonder and on this album it sometimes sounds like him; sometimes like a young, screechy Michael Jackson; sometimes like a booming Joan Armatrading; and sometimes it’s uniquely her. But the music that accompanies her is truly original, blending a mixture of sounds including jazz flute with Motown saxophone, latin drums, and caressing backup vocals.

A good example is the masterpiece of the album: “Gentle and Precise.” This song is put together and built like a (pick one) masterful oil painting; a finely-tuned European sports car; or a gourmet stew; with many different things going on at once. But the arrangement by Kearney is flawless and it works.

It starts out with a riff reminiscent of Miles Davis, heads into a mariachi trumpet sound, and then Kearney’s deep strong voice belts out, “Busy fools building shrines, Got a high education, But can’t seem to lift up their minds.” Her staccato inflection is then buoyed by a crescendo of soothing backup vocals. You hear all of these rhythms and melodies at once and you can’t help but smile (and maybe even dance).

Twelve musicians play a variety of instruments which makes this a very different album. There’s a trumpet, a flugelhorn, tenor sax, flute, trombone, violin and viola to go along with the standard lead guitar, drums, bass and keyboards. There is also something called a cuica and talking drum and a theremin, which provides some of the other-worldly sounds.

Other highlights include the songs:

  • “To the Moon”: This song has a funky groove with a bopping bass line layed down by Brian Coakley, followed later by some jazz flute by Dan Abreu that sounds reminiscent of Tito Puente’s band.
  • “Succotash Blue”: Kearny sounds like a young Michael Jackson here with a nice jam session towards the end.
  • “Bossa Nova Stereo”: Opens like a song from the Buena Vista Social Club album and ends with a bossa nova beat. Nice lyrics about a wise woman giving her advice: “She said you’ll never find peace thinking the way you think,  It’s not in a man, in a pill or a drink, Keep rolling along, Keep writing your song, And you’ll learn baby.”

The main theme that runs through this album is the desire for self-improvement and the pull of nature (specifically the moon) vs our free will. Kearney uses these primitive concepts to take us on a wild musical ride into what makes us human.

(“The Year of the Ox” is available on CD at CDBaby and for download at

(Discover more roots music in the Music section.)


Hogan’s New Album is Life’s Work, Labor of Love

The album is available on iTunes, CD Baby, and at Book Oasis in Stoneham.
The album is available on iTunes, CD Baby, and at Book Oasis in Stoneham.

(August 17, 2009)

Massachusetts singer, songwriter Kenny Hogan says his new album took three years to make, but if you listen carefully to him and the music, you soon realize this has been a lifetime in the making.

Hogan, who grew up in Medford (in the same neighborhood where I grew up) and now lives in Stoneham, has been a professional musician for 40 years, having played lead guitar in several bands that toured nationally.

His new album, “Frank’s Imperial,” features all original songs in a variety of genres including soul, rockabilly, blues, jazz, country, and electrifying rock n’ roll. Amazingly, he sings all lead and backing vocals and plays all of the instruments on most tracks.

Hogan’s influences are apparent: Motown, Beatles, Steely Dan, even Hank Williams. However, this album is truly original and a welcome find for music fans from the ’60s and ’70s.

The name of the album refers to Hogan’s memory of his father’s love for his 1967 Imperial automobile. The title track is a smooth, soulful tune that conjures up images of a 12-year-old boy sitting in the back of this massive luxury sedan with shiny chrome and fins while his father negotiates “rollercoaster road.”

So far, the album has gotten some play on NPR, and a few local radio stations. And the song “Backyard Barbecue,” is now the theme song for an online radio talk show called “BBQ Emergency.”

Hogan is a veteran of the Greater Boston music scene.
Hogan is a veteran of the Greater Boston music scene.

The album is available on CD Baby, Amazon and iTunes, where you can hear samples of the songs, including:

  • “Let’s Go!”: A hard-driving, rockabilly tune.
  • “Real Good Day”: An easy going melody featuring a jazz clarinet gives this track the same feel-good sentiment as the Beatle’s “Good Day Sunshine.”
  • “The Uke Song”: This number makes you think of grass skirts on a tropical island as Hogan sings about being away on a business trip in Florida while his wife is stuck up in snowy, freezing Boston. A smart DJ would play this for comic relief during the winter months.
  • “Heaven”: Lush backing vocals on this soul tune are all Hogan.
  • “Everything I Need”: Bluesy, grinding harmonica accompanies this song about “family, friends, and music.”

All of the songs on this album were a labor of love for Hogan. And it shows.

(Kenny Hogan will be interviewed live on WMBR radio on Sept. 10 at 4 p.m.  Cuts from “Frank’s Imperial” will also be featured.)

Check out more roots music in the Music section


Love Drives Shocked’s New Album

On her website, Michelle Shocked writes, "I love you America, but I think we should see other people."

(July 12, 2009)

Michelle Shocked’s new album, “Soul of My Soul,” is perhaps her most musically diverse, containing at least one tender love ballad, a screeching punk rock number, a gospel song and a bit of soul.

But what makes it rich are her lyrics which are all about love: love for her new man and love for this country. Although, I’m sure some would argue with the latter.

About half of the 10 songs are written about love and her boyfriend,fine artist David Willardson, and the rest are deftly crafted protest songs, the type of songs few artists, if any, are singing anymore.

Some critics have written that these attacks at the Bush era were released too late, yet they miss the point. Shocked is singing not only about Bush-era mistakes but about the history of injustices since the Revolution and the need for concerned citizens like herself to fight against them. And isn’t that the true American story?

Her songs also maintain their relevance because things haven’t turned around yet under the Obama administration and Shocked, after all, was a Kucinich supporter.

Even if you don’t agree with Shocked’s politics, you have to admire her boldness to say what few people are willing to say publicly: that this country has strayed far from its roots; her ability to put her complicated feelings not only into words, but into poetry; and finally her sincerity.

What Is A Patriot?

In one song she lets us all have it, singing about Americans being in denial, about building “our house on sinking sand,” and then asks if we are now “reaping our harvest of greed?” She then takes aim at her critics, saying you can call her unpatriotic or a traitor for saying all of this but she’s “singing this because I can,” and you know she’s also singing this because she still cares.

Raging against the government, the unchecked greed of a materialistic society, or the status quo is not new for Shocked but what is new is that she indicates on this album that she may be coming to some sort of peace about it all and she does this in the very clever song “Other People. What at first sounds like a woman about to break up with a lover turns into a song about a citizen about to take a break from her preoccupation with the politics of this country.

Right before the chorus, she reveals, “I’m saying this citizen to country, not woman to man.” And then the chorus starts, “We should see other people; I believe we should see other people.”

Honesty in a Tumultuous Career

Shocked has always been honest to herself, her music and her fans throughout her tumultuous career.

She was first discovered when someone made a recording of her singing around a campfire at a folk festival in East Texas in the 1980s. That led to her first record on a small label in London that caught the attention of some major American labels. She told a producer for Mercury Records who was trying to sign her that the budget for her first record with them was too much and why didn’t they give her a quarter of it and use the rest to sign some other artists.

A few years later when Mercury wouldn’t allow her to create what she wanted to create, she sued them for slavery and won. The lawsuit took several years to come to its conclusion and in the meantime she was not allowed to release anything new — a hardship that threatened to ruin her newfound success with her hit single “Anchorage.” It was an act of defiance that other artists admired, including Bruce Springsteen who said he wished he had as much courage as she did to willingly sacrifice her fame and success for her principles.

For Shocked it’s never been about the money, the success or the fame. I once saw her in a small club in Lowell, Mass. Before the show she distributed small flyers on each table with a list of the songs she intended to play that night. She handed me one and explained that on the back was a list of most of her other songs and the audience was going to vote on what she would play for an encore.

I was stunned that she was mingling with me and others as they arrived at the club and asked her “What are you doing mingling with us mere mortals?” She patted me on the back and replied in that sly way of hers, “Oh, I’m mortal. You can be sure of that.”

She may be, but her music and her story which are one in the same, will certainly outlive us.

(Photo Courtesy of .)


A True Roots Woman

Click on the photo to watch a video of Jen Kearney singing an acoustic version of her latest album's title track, "Year of the Ox."
Click on the photo to watch a video of Jen Kearney singing an acoustic version of her latest album's title track, "Year of the Ox."

(July 1, 2009)

Now, here is someone you need to check out: Musician and culinary school-trained chef Jen Kearney.

I saw her and her band, “The Lost Onion,” at the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge, Mass. last year and was blown away. Her band –six pieces including trumpet, sax, and trombone — played a mix of soul, latin, funk, reggae and rock n’ roll.

Most of the songs were originals. However, one of the surprising highlights was when they ended a cuban-fusion number and then started in on the Led Zeppelin hit, “What Is And What Should Never Be.” The band left the stage for this number, leaving just Kearney on the keyboards and a lead guitarist. The sound was ethereal.

The husky-voiced Kearney (who sometimes sounds like Stevie Wonder or Joan Armatrading) is playing some dates next month in Cambridge, Mass., New York, and her hometown of Lowell, Mass. She also plays in Lowell on Aug. 8 opening up for the Derek Trucks (of Allman Brothers fame) Band.

But what I didn’t know until today is that Kearney is also talented in the kitchen. An article in today’s Lowell Sun reveals she inherited “an Italian cooking gene” and includes a recipe and slideshow of her cooking what she calls “Lost at Sea Frutti de Mare.”

Now that’s a true rootsliving woman!

(I haven’t had a chance to try and make Jen’s dish, but when I do, I’ll be sure to write about it. It sounds – like her music –  incredible.)


Audio Slideshow: Let’s go to Memphis!

(May 18, 2009)

Beale Street in Memphis features clubs, restaurants, and friendly people who celebrate the blues day and night. (Photo by Mark Micheli)
Beale Street in Memphis features clubs, restaurants, and friendly people who celebrate the blues day and night. Click the photo or the headline above to watch and hear an audio slideshow on the city.(Photo by Mark Micheli)

(Photos by Mark Micheli / Music written and performed by Kenny Hogan)

Take a pilgrimage to the birthplace of rock n’ roll.

Tour Sun Records, where Elvis, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash got their start. Check out the Rock n’ Soul Museum where music and history collide. Get your groove on and learn a thing or two about soul music at Stax Records (“Nothing against the Louvre, but you can’t dance to Da Vinci”).

I learned a lot on this trip, including there’s a lot more to Memphis than just Graceland.

And to help you soak up all that knowledge, there’s plenty of beer and blues on Beale Street. Did I mention the wonderful food too: fried chicken, barbecue ribs, barbecue chicken, mint juleps etc., etc. (Check out the Food section in coming weeks for some recipes).

(© 2009 Mark Micheli)