for day of independents
does a number on Jonatha Brooke
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.
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 ...
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
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.
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
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.