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‘Steady Pull’ pushes for day of independents
Radio does a number on Jonatha Brooke
by Mark Anderson

There was a glorious time when radio was part of the solution.

Crooners bumped up against country, rock rubbed elbows with singer/songwriters and the playing field offered an enlightening, refreshing variety. But the airwaves have painted a depressing picture since those freewheeling 1960s and '70s devolved into today's constricted fare.

Modern-day underground: Click for a trip to the Jonatha Brooke Web site.

Similar such thoughts may have flashed across a few minds for at least a moment last month, during Jonatha Brooke's show under the stars at Portland's Pioneer Courthouse Square.

The mid-show moment was this: Brooke announced a song from her recent CD by enthusing“ ... and KINK is playing it!”

That CD, Steady Pull, is on Brooke's own label, Bad Dog Records, because MCA Records cancelled her contract – mid-tour – a few years back. Why? Because, in true Catch-22 fashion, her music wasn't on the radio and it just wasn't selling.

The sad reality is that every city seems to have a maverick radio station teetering on the brink of financial collapse just for playing songs and artists that aren't totally pre-programmed by some maddeningly monolithic music-marketeering laboratory.

But otherwise, the landscape is littered with the airwave equivalent of strip-mall sameness in city after city. And the singer/songwriter is replaced by, well, we've all suffered Britney's seemingly endless Pepsi commercial ...

Just a stage: Live, a 1999 release – Brooke's fifth overall – is the first on her own Bad Dog label.

Jonatha Brooke has weathered the devolution remarkably well. After beginning as half of a folk duo, the Story, on the burgeoning early-'80s Boston college scene, she forged through the '90s as a solo act. This year's Steady Pull is her sixth release in all.

Her 70-minute Portland stop featured glorious weather, the occasional inner-city squeal of streetcar brakes and a snappy, muscular three-piece band that afforded a tough, ear-pleasing edge to the usual singer/songwriter fare.

Brooke, jockeying between electric and acoustic guitars, enhanced the trio with her own stylish playing. Her inventive songs, punctuated with odd tunings and disarmingly dissonant chord changes, framed lithe, vigorous singing – which included an occasional gleeful and well-placed banshee yelp. Surprising snippets of "Stairway to Heaven," "Walk on the Wild Side" and "You Really Got Me" quaintly evoked radio's glory days.

A little push: Steady Pull is Brooke's latest Bad Dog CD.

Subsequent September tour dates brought a solo Brooke to Ireland, while Steady Pull itself is an interesting piece of work. The songwriting is melodic and literate, and the guests are impressive. Michael Franti and Neil Finn lend trademark vocals, while Joe Sample, Mitchell Froom, Marcus Miller and Pete Thomas are among the inspired players.

Prior to Bob Dylan and the Beatles, of course, singing and songwriting were largely separate domains and rarely did those paths cross. The Gershwins would write, Sinatra would sing and radio would gather the masses. What nobody seemed to realize is how quickly the capitalists would win the battle.

But they didn't win the war. Art denizens are a resilient breed and Brooke represents a flourishing rendition of the modern-day singer/songwriter: good ear, good instincts, female and fiercely independent. Her Pioneer Square show managed to pull these disparate gifts together in front of a few thousand folks.

A cynic might suggest that that's only because the KINK-sponsored show was a benefit for a worthy cause (the SMART reading program), the weather was ideal – and the show was free.

But that would be to ignore the legions of lip-synching concertgoers and the sizeable number of convertable new ears. Or to overlook the power of word of mouth, Web sites and file-sharing that is bound to broaden the circle.

Mainstream radio may no longer be a solution to anything, but the modern-day equivalent of an underground is ever strong. Somehow, the people find a way to tune themselves in.

E-mail Mark at andersonenterprises@hotmail.com, and visit prior editions of tripewriter.

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