Monday, November 29, 2010

Here’s To The Past: Why Anniversary Tours Are All The Rage

When you think about nostalgia-minded single album tours—ones where a band play a classic album front-to-back in its entirety—it used to be old-timers dusting off the hits of yore for one more go ‘round. When Roger Waters or REO Speedwagon do it, it seems like a case of fueling up the wayback machine for Granddad. If it’s an actively touring icon like Bruce Springsteen, it’s a chance to break up the monotony for fans who’ve seen him perform dozens of times. You probably don’t think about the type of bands you actually give a shit about doing the same thing—maybe indie heroes like the Pixies performing Doolittle for a long overdue makeup call cash-in or Slayer,  Megadeth or other metal vets who’ve done similar tours. But those are acts with some serious miles on the tires. When Nine Inch Nails performed The Downward Spiral front-to-back at New York’s Webster Hall in 2009, Trent Reznor told the audience it was something he’d always wanted to do and would probably never do again. They were witnessing history, he said.

Precisely, it was history. But history has a funny way of creeping up on music fans. Lately, some of our favorite scene bands are reaching back into their own pasts for tours that will find them revisiting classic albums. Last year, Jimmy Eat World performed Clarity on tour while New Found Glory performed their self-titled debut for its tenth anniversary. Weezer are about to embark on their much anticipated Blinkteron tour, in which they’ll perform the Blue Album and Pinkerton in sequence. Thursday will head out on the road in January to celebrate the decade anniversary of their breakthrough, Full Collapse, as will Dashboard Confessional, who’ll be marking a decade in business later this month with a tour commemorating the 2000 release of The Swiss Army Romance.

The reasons for attempting something like this vary from a simple marketing concept to revive interest in a band to straight-up nostalgia retread for a band out of creative steam to a quick and easy buck. For DASHBOARD CONFESSIONAL’s CHRIS CARRABBA, the inspiration was paradoxical: pushing himself to try something new, by training something old. Although he started Dashboard as a solo vehicle, Carrabba has largely become accustomed to the full-band set-up. “The reason I stopped [playing solo] was because I didn’t find it interesting,” he says. “I’d learned to do it pretty well, and it wasn’t infused with terror, which would lead me to kind of a greater high, you know? It’s been long enough now that the room for error has increased exponentially. I feel like I’m bad enough to do it again.”

Carrabba was reminded of the appeal of his one-man show during  an unannounced gig in his hometown earlier this year, where he packed three times the capacity into a tiny club. It reminded him of the connection that can be built with the audience at shows that size. “I started thinking, ‘This is just like it was,’” he says. “I thought it was this energy that I got lucky to tap into at one point. I felt encouraged that I could still be in that place. To be honest, it’s a much more rewarding place. We’ve played for thousands and tens of thousands, but that, kind of, lack of air conditioning, no lack of enthusiasm show, is a phenomenal place for live music. That’s when I started thinking about going back to those roots.” That show coincided with the approach of the 10-year anniversary of Swiss Army Romance, so it seemed logical to take the album on the road the way fans probably first heard it.

Carrabba says he didn’t realize the front-to-back album tour was a trend among other bands until people started asking him about it. “I kind of missed the boat on that,” he says. “I would have liked to have seen more than a few of them do that. I’m pretty pissed off that I missed Jimmy Eat World’s Clarity tour. I followed them around for, like, 12 shows [when they first toured on it]. That record was important to me.”

It’s connections like these bands are hoping to recreate by digging into the archives for songs they may have lost track of themselves, yet remain vital in many fans’ hearts. “Almost half of these songs are semi-retired from my live set,” Carrabba says. “For no good reason. There’s just piles of songs to sift through now. To say it’s nostalgia isn’t quite right. For me, it’s more invigorating than that. It’s less passive for me than nostalgia can be. It’s a bit of a new life to visit those songs again.”

Perhaps for him, but for original fans—some of whom didn’t go along for the ride when he went electric—it’s old life revisited. “I have very loyal fans to two different eras of Dashboard. Thankfully, there is overlap... There are fans of the first two records and the next few records. I think I probably lost a good amount of fans when I picked up an electric guitar. Some of them trickled back and some of them didn’t. Some that didn’t are coming back to these shows, which I enjoy, because I’m happy they’ll give it another crack. Or if they’re still in touch with my record that touched them in some way all those years ago, even though they didn’t follow me down the rabbit hole.”

For a band like Weezer, that’s precisely the case for a lot of fans. Carrabba, who toured with Weezer around the time of the 2001 release of their Green Album, recognizes a similar turning point for that band, as well. Many of their older fans, the ones for whom the Blue Album and Pinkerton represent their halcyon days, aren’t interested in seeing a set packed with newer material.

“That happens to every band, your fans are like a turnstile,” says ZACH SMITH of PINBACK. Under the moniker Pinback Presents, he and partner Rob Crow will perform their first two albums, 1999’s This Is A Pinback CD and 2001’s Blue Screen Life, in their entirety early next year. “It’s funny, we play shows now, and there are 15-year-old kids that weren’t around when we were doing the first album. And then there are people that were there who go, ‘What? I didn’t understand that last album.’ It’s a little bit of both now.”

Smith admits the concept seems like it’s a fad right now, but he and Crow had been talking about doing it for a long time as a means to get back to the vibe they had when they first wrote the records as a duo. Crucial to that process is getting fans to re-listen in the way they did when the records came out in 1999 and 2001, when picking and choosing songs from an album to download wasn’t nearly as common as it is now.Listening to an album from front-to-back is practically unheard of anymore. “That’s another good reason to do it,” he says. “Hopefully fans will have listened to the albums from front to back, but if they haven’t, they willBlue Screen,’ maybe they’ll listen how we intended for them to. Doing it live, it reinforces what we wanted it to be like when we wrote it.”
when they go to the show. Maybe making some people who didn’t listen to the album from beginning to end and just went, ‘Oh, ‘Penelope,’ that’s that one song from

LESS THAN JAKE drummer and lyricist VINNIE FIORELLO—whose band performed six of their albums from front-to-back recently—says after leaving Warner Bros, the shows were a way to start fresh as a band. “Playing all six records was very cathartic,” he says. It’s a treat for fans as well, he admits, because they get to listen outside the usual playlist standards. It doesn’t hurt to inject new life into your band commercially, either. “I think the popularity came with the fact that with album sales down and tickets sales slowing down, bands are looking for a hook to bring people in for a one-of-a-kind event.”

It’s caught on to such an extent, you don’t even need to be an older band to do it anymore. A LOSS FOR WORDS, a pop-punk band on Paper + Plastick Records who will be touring with Streetlight Manifesto (who played their old band Catch 22’s Keasby Nights in its entirety recently) and Terrible Things, plan on performing their 2009 record in sequence next year. Singer MATT ARSENAULT says the reason for that is people were complaining about songs being cut from the set. “Every time we play a show, someone’s bummed because they didn’t hear the song they wanted, so this way everyone will be pleased.” Arsenault saw New Found Glory’s tenth anniversary tour and loved the idea.

THURSDAY frontman GEOFF RICKLY says the excitement goes both ways. “It’s as interesting for the band as it is for the audience,” he says. “Like any artistic pursuit, it’s meant to engage the imagination. I find it interesting that a band continues to age, learn and change, but a record stays the same age forever. By revisiting an older record, you can find out whether momentum prevails or inertia is more powerful. When we wrote the record, we intended to tour for a year, end the band and finish school. I was sure that I was going to be a teacher and not a full-time musician. These last 10 years have been an incredible surprise.”

Performing Full Collapse is a way for his band to recapture the innocence and the excitement of what it was like first starting out a decade ago, albeit perhaps with a slightly more polished delivery this time. That’s one thing bands that have grown exponentially in popularity have to consider: how will these songs we wrote for clubs and haven’t continued to play over the years translate to larger venues? “If you come to see our band on a regular tour, you’ll see some sort of cross-section of material from throughout our history,” says Rickly. “So it’s quite a bit different for us to go out and focus on one specific group of songs... Some of them might sound ridiculous and dated in a larger venue, but overall, I’m looking forward to playing these songs with the added skill that the band has gained.”

Aside from that, anniversary tours can simply be a way to celebrate the fact that bands still even exist at all. “I think it’s rare for a band to still be touring on a 10-year anniversary of any of their records,” says Rickly. “So if they want to celebrate that, they should go for it.”

Carrabba echoes that sentiment. “It’s unlikely for anyone to get a break at all. To get a break is the first miracle. It’s even more unlikely to be there 10 years later and still have a job. I feel fortunate, and I’m not sure what I would be doing if I hadn’t gotten so lucky with this record.”

There are a lot of fans out there who can probably say something similar about their own lives in relation to these bands’ music. You can expect to see them in the front row at the show, singing like they never forgot any of the words.

The Back Eyed Peas: The Beginning'

Stockholm syndrome refers to the condition in which hostages develop positive feelings for their captors, but there’s also a corollary in pop music. It happens when a group’s music — an album that sells 11 million copies, and yields five Top 10 singles, say — hijacks your aural space so aggressively that the listener is pummeled into acquiescence. On a related note, the Black Eyed Peas’ new record just came out. You can probably imagine what it sounds like: minimalist drum machine beats, techno-lifted synth pulses, plinky keyboard hooks, retro-fitted hip-hop callbacks, pitch-shifted vocals, and songs that chain your brain to the furnace and beat you over the head with their cursed affability. In some cases here it’s easier to cry “uncle’’ than others, like on the Slick Rick-sampling “Light Up the Night.’’ Then again, anything would sound smooth over that “Children’s Story’’ beat. More obvious, and oblivious, is the sure-fire hit single “The Time (Dirty Bit),’’ which shuffles in a few Auto-tuned boasts, De La Soul rhymes, and siren-squiggles under the hook from the “Dirty Dancing’’ classic “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life.’’ It’s going to be the biggest song of the year, guaranteed, and you’re going to like it — whether you like it or not. 

Liquid: Arrack attack

Like anything else that people get really, really into - Internet porn, for example - once you've started chasing the infinite possibilities inherent in mixing cocktails down the boozy rabbit hole, you need to work harder to make things interesting. That's why desensitized tipplers turn to increasingly exotic cocktail ingredients and esoteric recipes to get that dopamine going. So while we covered the trend of tiki cocktails a while back in this magazine, the idea of plain old rum drinks just doesn't get our rocks off anymore. Yawn. What else you got?

Fortunately for our city's shark-like bar scene - which is forever swimming forward, devouring anything and everything in its path - there are still largely unknown spirits to discover when regular old missionary-position bartending just isn't doing the trick. One of those spirits, Batavia Arrack, is pushing tiki-style cocktails to another level, giving mai tais, zombies, punches, and the like that extra pinch of strange to spice things up. Batavia Arrack, which is basically an Indonesian "rum" made from sugarcane and fermented with red rice, does that both literally and figuratively, with its smoky, spicy profile. Hungry Mother, Rendezvous, and other bars around town are using it to give a new kick to rum cocktails and the people who drink them.

You might say Batavia Arrack falls somewhere between a smoky Scotch and a spiced rum on the spirit spectrum, and that malleability is what's giving bartenders a brain boner for it. While it can be rather tough to sip on its own, it's ideally suited for adding complexity to multiple-rum-based cocktails or recipes like Swedish Punsch. "The spirit itself has a long history of being used in classic punches prior to the creation of the cocktail," explains Bob McCoy, head bartender at Island Creek Oyster Bar (500 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, 617.532.5300). There, he's used it in a concoction called the Jakarta Punch ($10), shaking it with house-made spiced honey syrup, lime and pineapple juices, house-made cinnamon syrup, a dash of Angostura bitters, and six drops of absinthe - a heady blend of late-fall flavors. The drink, whose name nods to the capital of Batavia Arrack's country of origin, was created as "something to both quench the thirst and warm the spirit during the cold season ahead," says McCoy.

Next door at Eastern Standard (528 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, 617.532.9100), Jackson Cannon and his crew have been infusing the spirit with lemon, orange, cardamom, clove, and green peppercorn for a cocktail called the Flying Dutchman ($10), which also features St. Elizabeth's Allspice Dram, pineapple juice, crème de cacao, and 'Elemakule Tiki Bitters. "The cocktail has got a touch of chocolate, and allspice dram, which is really fiery, and a little pineapple juice for acid," says Cannon. The bartenders at Il Casale (50 Leonard Street, Belmont, 617.209.4942) likewise use allspice dram to bring out Batavia Arrack's smoky spice notes; the two ingredients are combined with ginger beer and orange and lime juices in the Sumatra ($9), which blasts the spice through the roof.

Joe Camm, general manager of Gordon's Fine Wine & Liquors in Waltham and Watertown, is somewhat surprised that Batavia Arrack is just picking up steam now. Although he still sees it as a spirit best suited for the serious enthusiast, "It's interesting to try on its own," he says, comparing it to cachaca. "But no one drinks that straight. For the most part, it's meant to be a mixer; it's meant for highlighting of citrus and cocoa flavors. With the resurgence and interest in classic cocktails, I guess it makes sense that it would be making a comeback right now," he says.

Whether anyone besides the "What's next?" crowd will bother using it at home is up for debate, says Camm. But the challenge of working with a tough ingredient like this is precisely what makes it appealing to bartenders jittery for their next fix.

Monday, November 22, 2010


All Day
(Illegal Art)

Pastiche artist Gregg Gillis' deliriously schizophrenic and omnivorously referential mash-up records have long been lauded as paradigm-shifting encapsulations of the post-millennial pop music fan's dwindling attention span, but his only real epiphany was in a matter of scope. Sampling has always been the modus operandi of hip hop, but instead of lifting, say, a horn sample or a snare drum hit, Gillis took that process to its logical end point by using everything at hand all at once. The only original product is the varied bits of sampled rock and hip hop in conversation with one another. A record like this, his fifth, is the ideal metaphor for how we listen to music now, skipping through not just songs and artists, but genres and rhythms and wildly varying musical moods on a whim. The result is Lady Gaga in concert with The Stooges, Rage Against the Machine versus M.I.A., Lil Jon shouting over Simon and Garfunkle's “Cecilia”, and Big Boi rapping over a slinky beat from Portishead. If that sentence sounds confusing, it only goes some small way toward approximating the rush of the hundreds of references here. Perhaps none among them is so stylistically incongruous as Ol' Dirty Bastard dirtying up Radiohead's “Creep.” “I'm a creep, I'm a weirdo, Oh baby I like it raw.” Depending on your susceptibility to this cut and paste style (and probably your age) that's either the best, or the worst, thing you've ever heard. 

(Available for free download now at

Essential: “Jump On Stage”

Friday, November 19, 2010

Brotherly love, etc.


Robert Kropf (left) and Gabriel Kuttner in "On an Average Day." (Chris Burke)

Take in a play about a family conflict, and later continue the drama at a restaurant run by two siblings


As the holidays approach, it’s time to start thinking about one of the more traditional annual pastimes: fighting with your family. Compared to the relationships on display in “On an Average Day,’’ John Kolvenbach’s theatrical descent into the heart of darkness that can make up the relationships between brothers and fathers, your squabbles will seem like playground arguments over the swings.

The story, a two-man performance starring Robert Kropf and Gabriel Kuttner, is about estranged brothers reunited in the home where their father abandoned them years before. The younger brother, accused of an act of terrible violence, is unraveling. The older brother, too, although seemingly in control, has got problems of his own bubbling. The results, says Kuttner, are darkly comedic, moving, and poetic.

Any thematic comparison to “True West’’ by Sam Shepard? “I can see some similarities. It’s set in a kitchen, it’s about two brothers,’’ Kuttner says. “The resolution is almost Milleresque; it reminds me of ‘Death of a Salesman’ in terms of fathers and sons and brothers.’’

“I think a lot of people we’ve found laugh a lot in the beginning, but we have some people moved to tears in the end,’’ he explains. “Hopefully one leaves feeling how important relationships are and that your family is the most important thing and needs nourishment and love and attention. I think people will probably go home and call their dads and say they love them.’’

“On an Average Day’’ runs through Saturday at the Boston Center for the Arts Plaza Theatre, 539 Tremont St., Boston. 617-426-5000.


The set for “On an Average Day’’ is a kitchen littered with detritus and beer cans. Around the corner at the restaurant Sibling Rivalry, there is a filial drama of sorts playing out in a somewhat more refined kitchen setting. In fact when you’re seated at the kitchen-side chef’s bar it might seem like you are watching a theatrical performance. The menu, divided into two halves, each one written by one of the two brother chefs Bob and David Kinkead, uses a single ingredient as a jumping off point — pasta, cheese, curry, cilantro, or poultry for example — from which either chef designs a dish. Chef Bob’s ancho chili steak tartar with cheese pupusas, pickled cabbage, green salsa, avocado and cilantro was one stand out on a recent visit.

You don’t have to take sides in the culinary argument though. “We recommend you mix and match,’’ says manager Alex Quayle. “We have à la carte, and three-course prix fixe on both sides. The menu is not focused on one ideal or one identity, so you can have a chance to come and find the items that speak to you the best.’’ That sounds like compromise; an essential ingredient in any brotherly relationship.

Sibling Rivalry, 525 Tremont St., Boston. 617-338-5338.

On an Island of your own

Oyster Bar sets a new Standard for the Kenmore Square area

If there’s one knock on Eastern Standard, regularly lauded as one of the best bars in the country, nevermind Boston, it’s that the already huge bar is usually so busy, it can be hard to find a seat. Taking over the old Great Bay space in the same building, Island Creek Oyster Bar, a new collaboration from the people behind Eastern Standard and Duxbury’s Island Creek Oysters should alleviate some of that.

A number of a familiar faces have made the trip down the hall, including bar director Jackson Cannon, head bartender Bob McCoy and general manager Tom Schlesinger-Guidelli. In other words, the bar program here is in really capable hands. The resulting libations echo the theme of the restaurant’s farm to table philosophy, with an emphasis on boutique spirits and daily fresh and seasonally appropriate cocktail ingredients. The décor of the space falls in line too, with a towering oyster shell bedecked wall, wooden beach slats and sandy-hued floors that suggest the Duxbury beach.

“We’re keeping the cocktail list a little bit smaller, but every bit as elegant as some of the more interesting offerings of Eastern Standard,” Cannon says.

They’re also designed to match well with the seafood and oyster-focused menu. Like the house cocktail Perennial, a classic vodka sour made with spiced fennel syrup and finished with lemon.

“We’re trying to echo seasonality,” says McCoy, calling that drink one of their more accessible.

Others, like the Spanish Cararvan, made with Calvados, Herradura Reposado, Lustau Sherry, Allspice Dram, and garnished with a dried, spiced-apple  hue skew toward the adventurous side that you’d expect from an all star lineup like this.

What he’s having:

McCoy suggests the Snug Harbor Smash, made with a blend of four rums (Appleton Estate, Rhum Barbancourt 8 year, Smith & Cross, and El Dorado 3 year), demerara syrup, crushed lime and mint.
“It’s got a beautiful molasses,” he says. “It’s a similar build to a whiskey smash, but a different flavor profile. The rum base is gorgeous, all purpose, all season long.”

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Free Energy stage a live dance party

GRAY MATTER “I don’t even know what rock and roll is now,” says Paul Sprangers (center). “It makes sense that nobody gives a shit about what’s considered rock music.”
Bad news for people who like bad moods: Free Energy are about to ruin your shitty day. The Philly band's effortlessly good-timing '70s-era guitar pop has spent the past year pushing the cranial buttons of the indie cognoscenti and armies of music journos who are excited about getting to remind everyone one more time that they like T-Rex. (Me, I'll make the Supergrass comparison — one doesn't get enough opportunities for that.) Their debut LP, this year's Stuck on Nothing (Astralwerks), is a keg party at the moontower of jaunty piano riffs, cow bell, and big, fuzzy guitar swipes.

The high energy and sense of fun that Free Energy put forth live is something of a rarity these days. "People do come up and say they aren't used to seeing shows where the musicians enjoy themselves on stage," singer Paul Sprangers tells me. They also get those traditionally statue-like club-show audiences moving. "People do dance, that's the incredible thing. People clap along, and we engage the audience, it's pretty incredible. I think that's a unique thing about our shows. People feel comfortable being involved with the band and the music."

When you hear the mutton-chop guitar fuzz of "Free Energy" and "Bang Pop," it's hard not to feel some barrier of internal cool breaking down. "This is all we've got tonight, we are young and still alive," Sprangers sings on the former. As in: life's too short not to wild out in the crowd.

The music, and Free Energy's approach to sharing it with crowds, is disarming. "I think I make it very clear that I'm a total nerd and there's nothing to worry about," Sprangers offers. "I'm certainly not a rock star. I just do what I feel in the moment, whatever that's going to be. I think when you see someone doing that, you feel more at ease."

So he's more like the host of a party that you're all invited to than the dude at the door keeping people out? "I think that's exactly what it is. And I'm also between the band and the crowd and trying to feed the energy back and forth."

But though he believes that rock and roll is supposed to be dance music, he's not sure just what that means. "It's funny, because I don't even know what rock and roll is now. I think there's a lot of dance music and hip-hop that has the spirit of rock and roll, but you listen to what's supposed to be rock and roll on the radio and it's this bland, super-produced, over-compressed white noise, just mindless. It makes sense that nobody gives a shit about what's considered rock music."

One guy who probably does give a shit is James Murphy, DFA head and LCD Soundsystem maestro, who produced the band's record before releasing it on his label. Although Free Energy fall outside what you might call the traditional DFA spectrum of clubbed-up disco rock, Boston's Bodega Girls just cooked up a remix of "Free Energy" in the same science lab where best friends and sunny days are made. Fool's Gold's remix of "Bang Pop" translated that song into a slowed-down dance-floor trip.

Sprangers says Free Energy songs are actually well suited to the remix knife. "There are guys in the DFA orbit that do these disco-rock remixes, like '70s songs. I don't think you throw 808 underneath a rock song, but you can tastefully remix them." Fool's Gold's "Bang Pop" remix, he adds, is a favorite. "It's like a new song almost with a new melody. I like it when people can make something new that's still in the spirit of the song."

FREE ENERGY + FOXY SHAZAM + HOLLERADO | Paradise Rock Club, 967 Comm Ave, Boston | November 23 at 7 pm | 18+ | $14 | 617.562.8800 or

Monday, November 15, 2010

Double Date: Eat Your Heart Out Boston

You Can Be A Wesley

There are rock clubs where you can get something to eat before the show, and there are restaurants that feature live bands, but if you want really good helpings of both at the same time, you usually have to trek to two separate locations. On Sunday, Eat Your Heart Out Boston saves you the trouble, bringing the best of both worlds together under one roof.

Now in its third year, the event is expanding with a move to the larger environs of the Paradise Rock Club. The idea behind it is simple: bring together a lineup of top-notch musical and culinary talent, get the crowd fed, then get them out on the floor.

Tim Wiechmann, chef and owner of T.W. Food in Cambridge, is doing double duty this year, first cooking, then strapping on his guitar to perform with his friends in the soul and blues duo Dwight & Nicole. Joining him on the culinary side will be chefs from some of the area’s more notable restaurants, including Lineage, Hungry Mother, Island Creek Oyster Bar, Coppa, Sel de la Terre, and more. The music lineup is equally impressive and representative of local talent, with acts Magic Magic, You Can Be a Wesley, and Brenda set to perform.

“Personally, it involves my two favorite things: food and music,’’ says Wiechmann. “I always like to bring the two things together. The customers love it. It’s tons of good chefs and a bunch of good bands.’’

The event is basically an extension of the type of backyard barbecues he used to throw for his friends where he’d do all the cooking, then break out the guitar, he says. “I’d throw a big party, cooks would come, musicians would come. This is like a much larger, professional version of that. It’s so popular because it’s like entertaining people from A to Z.’’

The Boston indie-pop outfit You Can Be a Wesley is returning for another go this year as well. The marriage of arts makes sense here, the band’s Saara Untracht-Oakner says. “Chefs and musicians create something from nothing for people’s enjoyment. Yeah, we create music for ourselves because if we didn’t we would probably go crazy, but we’re making records and playing shows because we want other people to enjoy it as much as we do. That seems like the only logical reason chefs would make food too.’’

That’s only part of the reason she’s excited about the event, though. Bands, as you probably can guess, don’t normally subsist on the best of diets. “This is the best dinner most of us will have all year besides Thanksgiving,’’ Untracht-Oakner says. Most of the people in attendance will probably be able to say the same.

Eat Your Heart Out Boston is Sunday.. Tasting 6 p.m.; music 8 p.m. $35. Paradise Rock Club, 967 Commonwealth Ave., Boston.

Boston Globe

The bittersweet smell of success

The story behind Bittermens, the Somerville-based bitters makers, is a pretty common one in the world of small-batch producers. Avery and Janet Glasser wanted to use a product, saw an opening for it in the market, and said, "Screw it - we'll do it ourselves." In 2007, the couple were cocktail enthusiasts living in San Francisco when they were invited to a bitters-making class at a nearby distillery. Their first effort, a riff on the mole sauce common in Mexican cooking, was almost instantly well-received; when bars started sniffing around, they realized they had a potential business opportunity on their hands. The recipe they designed on that first try, a potent, spicy blend of cinnamon and chocolate, is essentially the same one you'll find in their popular Xocolatl Mole Bitters today.

Wait a second though - what are bitters again? First things first: there are two kinds of bitters, potable and non-potable. The former are digestifs (like the ubiquitous bartender's friend Fernet-Branca) that are meant to be consumed on their own. Non-potable bitters, like Bittermens and bigger brands like Angostura and Peychaud's, are essentially liquid spices that add flavor and complexity to cocktails; they're made by steeping herbs, barks, and citrus in high-proof neutral spirits. Since they generally have a high alcohol content and a very powerful flavor, you wouldn't want to drink them alone (unless you were living 100 years ago, back when they thought getting drunk on stuff like this counted as taking medicine). Many classic cocktails - like the Manhattan, the Sazerac, and the Martinez - call for varying types of bitters.

"Most people who drink cocktails vaguely know what bitters are, since they are called for in many recipes. However, for the average drinker, they probably have a bottle of Angostura and that's it," says Janet Glasser. A product like Bittermens is designed for people who want to take at-home mixing to the next level.

While the Xocolatl Mole is still the most popular recipe, Bittermens has branched out into other flavors as well. The Grapefruit Bitters are made with grapefruit peel and hops, while the 'Elemakule Tiki Cocktail Bitters are a bright, spicy cinnamon blend meant to be used in tiki-style cocktails. And the most recent addition, Boston Bittahs, is a citrus-heavy recipe best served in crisp, refreshing seasonal cocktails. The Glassers recommend using the Xocolatl Mole in a cocktail like the Latin Quarter, a riff on the Sazerac made with rum instead of rye. (For more imbibing inspiration, check out their website,, which features a bevy of original recipes.)

Unsurprisingly, Bittermens has caught on among the mixologist crowd in Boston. "When we gave the bitters to bartenders, the reaction was very positive, and we now have bars throughout the country where they are used," says Janet Glasser. Locally, you'll find them being used at bars like Eastern Standard, No. 9 Park, Hungry Mother, and Drink, to name a few. The Boston Shaker (69 Holland Avenue, Somerville, 617.718.2999) carries all the bitters, as does Liquor World (13 White Street, Cambridge, 617.547.3110).

Scott Holliday of Rendezvous (502 Massachusetts Avenue, Cambridge, 617.576.1900) prefers the Xocolatl Mole bitters himself. "I find they're a nice departure and addition from other aromatic bitters in Old Fashioneds and even Manhattans. They are nicely complex with layers of flavors, qualities that are lacking in so many of the new ‘one-note' bitters." He's using them most often these days in his version of New York bar Milk & Honey's drink Penicillin ($9), which also features Scotch, honey-ginger syrup, and Angostura bitters, with a spoonful of smoky Scotch floating on top and a squeeze of orange juice.

At Green Street (280 Green Street, Cambridge, 617.876.1655), they've got a cocktail called Avery's Arrack-ari ($8.50), made with Batavia Arrack (an Indonesian "rum" distilled from sugarcane), lime juice, simple syrup, and a Talisker rinse. It's named after Avery Glasser, who'd sit at the bar with owner Dylan Black and talk recipes. It's not regularly made with Bittermens tiki bitters, but adding a few dashes made the citrus really pop. Green Street's Déjà Vu in Delhi ($8) adds the tiki bitters to Old Monk rum, St. Germain, and lime juice for a surprisingly dry citrus-and-molasses blend.

"Beyond the standard bitters, we wanted to bring in some that fit in well with the rum profile of our cocktails," Black says. "Beyond that, we're interested in supporting people we could see face to face." There's nothing bitter about that.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Morning Benders

Finding a new sound in a ‘Big Echo’

While “Talking Through Tin Cans”, the debut 2008 release from the California indie rockers The Morning Benders garnered a bevvy of comparisons to similar retro-minded bands, this year's follow up “Big Echo” found them discovering their own sound. The jangly, sunny acoustic guitar pop gave way in part to a slower, more contemplative approach. “Sometimes people are smart enough to take us on our own terms, other people feel the need to give another band as a reference point,” says songwriter and frontman Christopher Chu. “It doesn't really matter to us as long as people are finding a way to our music.”

Coupled with the more languorous, sonically dense tracks like “Mason Jar”, wistfully romantic fifties vocal pop songs like “Excuses” show that the band is still pulling from the past for inspiration. Most people know and love those songs, even if they don't know who they are listening to,” Chu says of the hits of a bygone era. “When I wrote 'Excuses' there was a kind of feeling and nostalgia I was after, and to me, that feeling was best captured by certain aspects of those fifties tunes.”

As The Morning Benders' profile continues to grow, it's likely the ambitious young band will continue to explore the boundaries of their warm, harmony-rich blueprint. Chu says he intends to make full use of the wider production opportunities that have become available since he first started out. “There was a turning point for me when I became more interested in production. Ever since then I haven't been able to listen to music the same way. I can't separate my songs from the way they are going to be produced. Instead of just writing melodies and lyrics on a guitar, I just as often write a melody with a texture or groove or space in mind.”

A relocation to the east coast may have an effect on their iconic and breezy California outlook as well, although that remains to me be seen, says Chu. “I have no idea what our sound is going to change into. I wouldn't say it's going to suddenly change into an "East Coast" sound. We actually haven't spent any time in the east because we've been on the road this entire year non stop. All I can say for sure is that we know we want to try something different for the next album.” 

Say Anything

Touring on the strength of last year's self-titled album – a collection of arena rock guitar bombast, quirky keyboard hooks and lyrics that alternate between emotively confessional and tongue in cheek breakdowns of contemporary youth pop culture, Los Angeles pop-punk act Say Anything come to town tonight.

Most bands aren't capable of playing both side of the fence so ably, matching up dense lyrical prowess with meaty pop hooks. “It's rare that you come across a band that isn't afraid to use big words, over share, get awkward, get to the point where it's not pretty,” frontman Max Bemis says. Bands who try to go the heady route, no matter how talented they are song-writing wise, usually miss the mark. “A lot of those bands tend to become either pretentious, or really crappy emo bands. We're lucky that it's a good formula that involves trying stay stay poppy and refined but at the same time I get to bear my heart, using my own voice, which tends to mess around with big words and details.”

His sense of humor, evident on tracks like “Less Cute” and the Kings of Leon-jabbing “Mara and Me” adds another layer of complexity. It's part of a process of deconstructing genre conventions from the inside, says Bemis. In his band's case, it tends to be the emo and pop punk genres under the microscope.

“We wouldn't put in a solo that sounds like a mixture of Boston and something even cheesier, if we didn't think it was somewhat funny,” he says of the record's playful arena-rock touches. “I learned a lot from bands like Weezer that came about as a reaction to all the self-seriousness that was going on in the nineties. I also really genuinely appreciate that type of music. I love Queen and Aerosmith, a lot. When I write an arena rock song, it might be somewhat ironic, but it still comes from the heart.”

Say Anything
with Motion City Soundtrack
Tonight, 5:30
House of Blues
15 Lansdowne St., Boston
$24-$34, 888-693-2583

Kid Cudi | Man on the Moon II: The Legend of Mr. Rager

If nothing else, Kid Cudi continues to confound expectations of how the role of star rapper should be played. Behind his breakout 2009 disc, Man on the Moon: The End of Day, and thoughtful hits like "Day 'N' Night," he embarked on a whirlwind year, collaborating with everyone from Kanye and Jay-Z to Shakira, MGMT, and Vampire Weekend. That sort of rapid success — surprise surprise — can be hard to deal with, especially for a hip-hop artist of apparent vulnerability. Brushes with the law and a cocaine habit sent his personal life on a turn to the dark side, something that's soon evident over the course of Mr. Rager's 17 remorseful tracks. Fuck getting the party started — there's nothing to dance to here anyway. Cudi got the party started so hard, it's already time to piece together the details of what happened after the blackout. "Hide the pain with some pussy and mimosa," he raps on "Wild'n Cuz I'm Young." This might be the first example of a commercially viable coke rap that tells the other side of the story: the brittle paranoia and self-doubt that come from the crash. Collaborators like Cee-Lo (who tosses off an effortless hook on "Scott Mescudi vs. the World") buoy the mood, but Cudi is rapping over bass lines so tense and beats so claustrophobic, each snare or kick seems like brackets clamping down on his thoughts. On "REVOFEV," the mood gets downright sickly, with a groaning hook that sounds like the soundtrack to an hour spent face first in the toilet. "I'm so high up, so high up and I like it," he half-sings. This isn't any sentimental, overcoming-demons bullshit — it's simply how it is. "Don't Play This Song" in particular is the anti-feel-good song; for all its surface-level uplift, it's a total bum-out. Cudi musters the bravado on "Mojo So Dope," but it's the most understated, undercutting puff-out in recent memory. Even big-time rappers, it seems, get the fear. Bad news for him, good news for us.

Throw down!

Katie Powell (left) of Brookline and Lauren McCourt of Boston let fly at Game On! last month. (John Blanding/Globe Staff)
How bag toss became the next big bar game

It’s opening night for the Celtics, and the game is on dozens of screens in the lower level of Lansdowne Street bar Game On! There’s a sense of excitement and competition in the air, and the crowd of a hundred or so is cheering loudly — but not because of the C’s.

All eyes are on the beanbags that are flying through the air and landing with solid thwacks on wooden targets. Teammates playfully talk trash to one another and hand out high-fives for scoring tosses. The following night a similar scenario will play out across town at Clerys in the South End, and, on other nights, at pubs like Bleacher Bar and the Green Briar.

Foosball, darts, and trivia nights have long been mainstays of the local bar scene, but the deceptively simple and addictive bean bag toss is becoming a favorite at pubs around the city, not to mention in backyards and tailgate parties.

The game, also known as cornhole, is roughly equivalent to horseshoes, pitting two teams of two against one another in a competition to 21 points. Points are scored by tossing cotton bags filled with corn at target holes cut into angled wooden platforms placed 20 to 27 feet apart. The American Cornhole Association outlines the specific dimensions for officially sanctioned play, but occasionally at indoor tournaments one makes do with the limited indoor space. Bags that are successfully tossed into the target hole are worth three points; those that land on the platform are worth one.

While the number of players around the country is difficult to pinpoint, says Mike Whitton of the ACA, his group claims some 30,000 members and climbing. Their website has 725 tournaments listed this year alone. “On any single weekend during the season there could be 100,000 players partici pating,’’ he estimates.

The reason for the game’s growing popularity? Because it’s so easy to learn, says Social Boston Sports co-founder Brian Shaw. He was organizing the flow of the 40 teams competing on eight different courts set up on the multitiered floor space at Game On! The league play at the bar includes seven weeks of competition.

“Look around,’’ Shaw says. “Everyone is holding a beer. You don’t need a whole lot of athleticism to play, or to even be good. It’s a social game, it’s not aggressive.’’

Peter Coumounduros, the Massachusetts rep of the Cornhole Game Association, which organizes games around the Reading area, agrees.

“The appeal is you can play very competitively with other adults in any number of settings — beach, backyard, block parties, or in a low-key environment with family and kids,’’ he says.
Unlike horseshoes or lawn darts, which have the potential for injury, cornhole is fairly harmless and can be played almost anywhere. “I’ve yet to see anyone get hurt by a beanbag,’’ Coumounduros says. “It’s easy to set up, easy to move around, easy to pick up and get used to the game. And if you’re short on players, you can pull in one of your kids.’’

Like many devotees, Coumounduros has constructed his own playing targets from material purchased online through the ACA or hardware stores. Another enthusiast, Matthew McDonough, a prosecutor from Marshfield, has boards of his own that he built and carts around to barbecues and parties every chance he gets.

“From my first game I was hooked,’’ McDonough says. “Cornhole is so much fun because unlike so many other yard or tailgating games, it remains challenging due to the distance between the boards, while being absolutely safe. Cornhole is so much fun that all my siblings got addicted and my sister ordered me to bring my boards to her own wedding. Tuxedo cornhole was a first for me.’’

Like most others who talk about the game, he can’t specifically pinpoint where or when the game was invented. Surely, some version of a bean bag toss has existed for eons. But the lore is that cornhole became popular in the Midwest roughly 60 years ago. McDonough picked it up on a trip to South Bend, Ind., before a Notre Dame football game. Whitton suggests it was born in the Cincinnati area in the late ’40s.

“There are rumors of it coming from Scotland, Ireland, and England,’’ Whitton continued. “I personally played the game in 1952 in Cincinnati.’’

Michael Rielly, a software engineer from Brighton who plays in a league at Clerys, just picked up the game this year, also on a trip to Indiana, and he’s already started his own organization called Boston Cornhole (

He was surprised to see how popular the game was back home when he returned. It’s easy to see why bars would be eager to start leagues of their own. “We have 28 teams at Clerys,’’ he says. “That’s 56 people. For a bar that’s getting 56 people on a Tuesday or Wednesday night, that’s pretty good.’’ He says he’d like to expand the opportunities to play the game at bars around Allston and Davis Square, where a concentration of college-age residents make it a sure match.

“Anyone can play it, and anyone can be good at it,’’ says Rielly, who credits much of its popularity to the game being played at tailgates outside football games. That’s where Katie Sammon and Kim Steffen, recent Ohio transplants, learned about it. The teacher and pharmaceutical rep were on their way to victory at Game On! the other night.

“The first rule of thumb of cornhole is don’t play girls from Ohio,’’ Sammon jokes. “We love cornhole. The Cleveland Browns aren’t any good, so what else are you gonna do at the game?’’ Sammon says, as her opponent lands a beanbag just shy of the target. Game over. That’s one match done. But all around the city dozens of others are just getting started.

Boston Globe

Saturday, November 6, 2010

His life as ‘Baba Booey’

Gary Dell’Abate, Howard Stern’s producer, at Northeastern yesterday. (Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)

Longtime Howard Stern sidekick and show producer Gary “Baba Booey’’ Dell’Abate stepped outside his normal wacky radio studio environs yesterday to give readings at Northeastern University and the Brattle Theatre. Dell’Abate is in the middle of a tour to promote his new memoir, “They Call Me Baba Booey.’’

What do you think will surprise people the most in the book?

I think the biggest surprise will be about how I grew up. I came from a dysfunctional family. I had a mom that was suffering from depression. I think if you’re a big fan of the show and you read those first few chapters, you’ll go, “Oh, now I get it, now I understand it.’’

Does it feel liberating to be able to address this stuff outside the context of the show? 

I talk about a lot of stuff, my mom’s mental illness, I had a brother who died of AIDS, and I tell the story of how that all happened. Then I tell funny stories. . . . I made a videotape to a girl I was in love with and it got out on the show, I talk about that. Then I talk about how I met Howard, so there’s a little bit of everything.

Did your real family prepare you for your dysfunctional radio family?

There’s no doubt in my mind. Some people say, “Your mother gave you a hard time. Isn’t that terrible?’’ I look at it this way: My mother sort of got me ready for the job of a lifetime, because I always had to think five steps ahead. The mood swings in my house were so crazy when I would come home I never knew what I was going to get on the other side of the door. It’s sort of like producing a show.

Howard has been pretty hard on the book on the air.

Yeah, but it’s all in good fun. He wants to talk about the book, and it’s not our nature to say, “This is great, this is great.’’ So he’s got to figure out ways to make it interesting and entertaining, and goofing on me is always a good fail-safe.

Do you have a favorite time someone has shouted “Baba Booey’’ on the air when they shouldn’t have?

I’ve got a ton of them. Probably the best one was during the OJ car chase. Peter Jennings was live on the air and a guy called in and claimed he was right across the street watching the whole thing. He was doing the worst voice ever. It was so obvious it was a phony phone call after the first two words. Jennings was letting this guy go on. Even though I didn’t know it was one of our listeners, I could tell. And at the end he yells out “Baba Booey to y’all!’’ That’s one of my favorites.

Double Date: Buona sera, baby


With its tale of betrayal, political intrigue, passion, and a conflict between the powerful and the powerless, it’s no wonder that the story behind Italian composer Giacomo Puccini’s “Tosca’’ has made it one of the most enduring and popular operas since its premiere in 1900. Over time it’s been adapted into a number of different settings, including the original Napoleonic period, Nazi Germany, and a more contemporary Mafia scenario. But for the Boston Lyric Opera’s production, Mussolini’s Italy provides the backdrop for the drama.

“The story is about what do you do when you find yourself in a political system where human dignity is impossible, and how do you get out of it and defend yourself,’’ says the BLO’s director Esther Nelson. In the story, the singer Tosca is forced to choose between saving the life of her lover and a horrible offer she can’t refuse from the brutal government. The conflict of the story is part of what makes it continually appealing, says Nelson. “This is such relevant human drama, and people on a daily basis around the world are being put in that kind of position where they can’t get out of it with dignity.’’

Bringing the story forward in history helps establish a more visceral connection to modern audiences.

“How do we make it relevant to an audience that sits comfortably after a nice dinner and a couple of glasses of wine?’’ asks Nelson. “You want to make it feel that it could happen to anyone in different circumstances. You want to bridge that somehow so it doesn’t seem so far away and tucked away.’’

“Tosca’’ opens tonight at 7:30 at the Boston Lyric Opera at the Shubert Theatre, 265 Tremont St., Boston. 617-542-4912.

Hmmm. What goes well with an Italian opera? Fortunately, near the Shubert, the options are plentiful. Just up Tremont Street at Teatro, you might consider a quick bite of cheese pumpkin and lobster arancinis coupled with one of their Prosecco-based cocktails, or a glass from their broad range of Italian wines. Around the corner at Bina Osteria, the restaurant’s lounge area is perfect for cozy pre- or post-show drinks or dinner as well. Chef Azita Bina-Seibel’s cuisine, drawn from all regions of Italy, offers options like strozzapreti with mushrooms, fresh ricotta, spinach, pancetta, and rabbit ragout.
It’s cuisine people are comfortable with, she says. “It’s very flexible, easy, simple cooking. Italian plates are simpler, three or four different ingredients, not like French food that involves a lot of steps and a lot of involvement.’’ Fortunately, the same can’t be said of Italian opera.

Teatro, 177 Tremont St., Boston. 617-778-6841.; Bina Osteria, 581 Washington St., Boston. 617-956-0888.

Complaints, jokes dished out for food mag

Say this about the obscure food magazine Cooks Source — it’s not obscure anymore. Unfortunately the Sunderland-based publication has garnered the attention of the blogosphere for all the wrong reasons. As we reported yesterday, writer Monica Gaudio revealed that the magazine had lifted a piece of her work wholesale from another website without permission. After she complained in an e-mail, the magazine’s editor, Judith Griggs, responded with a downright bizarre justification, which, among other things, suggested Gaudio should have paid the magazine for cleaning up her work. The tale only got weirder yesterday. The story exploded across the Internet with allegations that the magazine’s laissez faire ethics appear to be standard practice. The Cooks Source Facebook page was soon flooded with negative reactions and claims that articles and photos have been co-opted from sources such as the Food Network, Paula Deen, and NPR. As is usually the case when the Web mob readies the pitchforks, the story quickly moved from a rallying cry for creative ownership rights to a deluge of sarcastic in-jokes like the trending Twitter meme #buthonestlymonica taken from the opening salvo of Griggs’ original e-mail “apology.’’ Reports that Cooks Source is responsible for everything from starting World War I, canceling “Arrested Development,’’ and inspiring the hit song “Forget You’’ by stealing Cee-Lo’s girlfriend were unverified as of press time. Since yesterday, Cooks Source has removed all contact information from its website, and its phone number appears to be disconnected. Griggs did not respond to e-mails from the Globe.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Barn Owl: Ancestral Star

A quick heads-up to the folks at the Nature Channel or anyone working on one of those films about the formation of the Earth: this third LP from San Francisco instrumental duo Barn Owl has the type of glacially churning geological-genesis drone rock you're looking for in a soundtrack. And not just because the 10 songs here have titles that seem like Post-it Notes on God's refrigerator. Opening suite "Sundown" and "Visions in Dust" move from slow-boiling power ambiance to tectonic heaves of feedback drone. For such an all-encompassing panorama, it's surprisingly minimal. The riffs may scatter in waves to either pole on the horizon, but the mossy pace and restrained drumming bring everything back from the doom-slayer instrumental metal edge this record could have tottered over in a lesser incarnation. The title track twinkles and glows, sending off sound waves that move so slowly, they might as well be transmissions from light years away; eventually, the smooth plane of stellar noise devolves into a storm of buzzing chaos. It's an atmosphere-setting collection, with little in the way of memorable riffs or melodies. But that's the point: Earth has needed to slow its roll for a minute now. Here's the inspiration.

BARN OWL + MV & EE + THE BODY + HIGH AURA'D | P.A.'s Lounge, 345 Somerville Ave, Somerville | November 16 at 8:30 pm | 21+ | $8 | 617.776.1557 or