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Hey, there’s a Jimi on your shoulder! Jim Barrett.

Photo:Chris Shields

Keeping the Beat
By Erik Hage

Record-store owner, radio host and all-around rock & roll guy Jim Barrett reflects on 35 years of service to the local-music scene

 

It’s a little before noon on Saturday, and Jim Barrett is perched behind the counter of his River Street Beat Shop pawing through a stack of vintage vinyl. He pulls discs from sleeves, peering inquisitively at the grooves and tips of the glossy black surfaces so that they pool some of the wintry sunlight streaming through the storefront, all the time maintaining a steady stream of conversation.

The record shop is in a bucolic little nook in Troy’s antique district; two doors up, wooden chests sit on display out on the snow-rimmed sidewalk. Just down the block resides an old country store.

Patrons occasionally bang through the doors, panting frozen breath plumes and warmly greeting Barrett, who knows most of them and consistently veers from our interview to engage in spirited conversation. Barrett opened the Beat Shop’s doors (picking up where he left off with his previous store, Positively 3rd Street) almost a year ago. “We’re really happy here in the antique district,” Barrett says. “I love it down here. People have been so nice.”

Over the course of a couple of hours, the shop comes off like a slice of local-music life, from the patrician senior citizen in a Red Sox cap awaiting assessment on his quality stack of jazz vinyl to a man-mountain in hardcore regalia pumping Barrett’s hand and engaging in friendly banter to a congenial jam-band promoter shooting the breeze and handing out CDs. In a corner of the shop, a microphone stand awaits an afternoon performance of hillbilly tunes by Frank Novko. (There’s an in-store show every Saturday at 2 PM.)

This simply seems like someplace one wants to be on a frigid, sunny Saturday. It has a lot to do with the old-fashioned River Street environs; it also has a lot to do with the light bustle of regulars. It has even more to do with the congenial Barrett, whom patrons cozy up to like a friendly fire. Barrett is a gentile and proprietary presence, and the store is simply one manifestation of his long and abiding interest in local music.

He also has a couple of other incarnations. Anyone familiar with his longtime band—the notoriously loony, potty-mouthed garage-punkers the Lawn Sausages—may have witnessed his wilder persona onstage as deviant lead howler for that group (alternately clad as caveman, deranged Santa, cross-dresser, etc.). But his longest and perhaps most significant contribution to local music has been as a host of the weekly radio show Acoustic Kaleidoscope (formerly Kaleidoscope), on which he has rigorously promoted local music for 35 years. For the past six years, the show has been on 104.9 LOVE FM, until a format change to country music a few weeks back put him in limbo (which he hopes will be temporary). Prior to that, the show was a 29-year staple on WRPI.

To commemorate the 35th anniversary, Barrett recently released a CD, Jim Barrett’s Kaleidscope, which culls a bunch of in-studio performances from the show’s vast archives. A wide range of local performers show up on the project, including Johnny Rabb, Rosanne Raneri, Michael Eck, Erin Harkes, Sean Rowe, the Good Earth and Mark Emanation. Sixty percent of the proceeds from the sale of the CD go to the Regional Food Bank of Northeastern New York.

As for the music, Barrett had a specific theme in mind. “I wanted to strip everyone down to the basics, right to the song. . . . Once it’s stripped down it’s just their talent and the song, no gimmicks. And they’re all one-takes. We just make them fire up and pretend that they’re doing a live show somewhere.”

Even the performance by longtime local rock & roller Rabb was primarily acoustic. Rabb remembers going in with just acoustic guitar, backed up by standup bass and one snare drum, with guitarist Graham Tichy adding the only electric accents from a small amp. Rabb, a cornerstone of local music for decades, notes, “Jimmy is quite a character,” adding, in tones laden with emphasis and sincerity, “and he’s just been one of the greatest all-time supporters of local music.”

Barrett points out that with all of the performances on the show through the years, “We had to leave a lot of people out. Hopefully we’ll have another disc next year.” But he had a particular aesthetic in mind. “I wanted this thing to be comfortable-sounding. It sounds corny, but I wanted something where you could sit around the fire, have a couple of beers and really enjoy this disc.” It came down to the tunes. “Great songwriting was the key—really interesting songs that fit together. If you listen to it, it’s a bit of a suite.”

It was also a statement on Barrett’s part to have Rabb (with his original “Daddy’s Caddy” and “Lucky For Christmas” by the Staynz’ Buck Malin) open and close the disc. Barrett says that Rabb, “to my mind, is the most significant local musician of all time. John carried on when everybody was doing disco. When bars weren’t hiring, he’d play any dive he had to play to keep it going. And just thinking about some of the people that went through his band—to me he’s the ultimate local musician. And in Europe he’s hugely popular! He’s a raw, pure talent.”

Barrett leads a jam session at the Beat Shop.

Photo: Chris Shields

It’s almost difficult to get Barrett to talk about his own history, as he consistently and excitedly veers our chat toward various local artists. (The mention of a name inevitably prompts Barrett to scuttle off to the shelves for yet another CD to donate to this hapless writer.) Besides his paean to Rabb, he unfolds numerous stories and astute observations about various local artists, displaying a clear appreciation and deep knowledge of local lore.

For example, he remembers that his first impression of local soul-rocker Sean Rowe (who’s on the CD) came long before Rowe established himself as a Chunnel-throated, soul-rock crooner. “This little kid would come in every week [to Positively 3rd Street], and he’d buy blues and soul; he wouldn’t buy any rock & roll. He was buying real funky soul and stuff. It seemed strange.” Then, just last year, Barrett happened to be at Artie’s River Street Stage (a rock’s toss from the Beat Shop), enjoying a beer, when he heard Rowe for the first time. “This voice comes out, and I turned around and I go, ‘In the name of God, who is that?!’ And Artie [Fredette, who is also in the Sausages], says, ‘Jimmy, that is Sean Rowe.’ I go, ‘You have got to be kidding me.’” Since then, Rowe has been on Barrett’s show three times.

The story is typical of Barrett’s banter, which is filled with details about numerous local musicians; he knows their biographies and glories in their successes. Local singer-songwriter and Times Union music writer Michael Eck, who is also on the CD, recalls, “I’ve been [playing the show] since he used to be back at RPI. It’s just always been a special thing, the fact that [Barrett] is willing to put as much time into it as he does. He always makes everybody who goes there not only feel comfortable, he makes you feel like you’re the biggest rock star in the world while you’re there.”

Barrett started the show in the late ’60s while hanging around the RPI campus. “They thought I was a student—I carried books! I had just gotten married, just had a kid and I was dying to do radio. I was working construction. . . . I just met some guys and some ladies there and hung out. The show took right off.” Throughout the years the show has featured comedy bits, national acts (like Van Halen) who happened to be touring through town, and of course its staple, local musicians. (Barrett notes that his show was the first to feature such key local acts as Blotto, Fear of Strangers and Ernie Williams.)

During Kaleidoscope’s 29th year, in the early ’90s, Barrett and his rotating cast of radio cronies inexplicably lost their WRPI slot over a paperwork dispute when a new student leader came on board. “His roommate, who just happened to be his girlfriend, took our spot and did a three-hour Rush special, which I thought was really enlightening. After a year, through arbitration, we got our show back. But it wasn’t the same.” (Barrett is quick to add that in recent years the station has been “in good hands.”)

Soon after, via Patrick Ryan—who had worked with Barrett years before at WRPI (as record librarian)—104.9 invited Barrett on board. In the show’s most recent incarnation, Don Widman served as engineer and Ann Shaughnessy acted as media critic. (Barrett always refers to the show in the royal “we.” Crew members over the years have included Artie Fredette, Marty Dion, Paula Vielkind Neun, Roger Hard and Paul Hebert.)

And while Barrett is still reeling a bit about being off the air, he does have plans in the works to be up and running again soon. “The director of Albany Broadcasting gave me permission to tell you this: We’re working on something—I’m part of something that’s gonna happen that I think is going to show respect for the listeners again,” Barrett offers. But when pressed for details (station, etc.), he demurs. “I really can’t say much more than that. I’ve probably said more than I should have.” Barrett claims he isn’t being overly secretive; it’s just that the details are in the early stages. But he has faith in Albany Broadcasting. “I’ve been treated like family there. It’s a very small group of people who really do care.”

But something about Barrett’s history is not adding up. If Kaleidoscope started in 1967, how could this be the 35th anniversary? Barrett pulls a black-and-white photo off the wall behind the counter. It’s a shot taken in the early ’90s, around the time that the show lost the WRPI slot. In it are about nine men in various freakish modes of dress. The relatively stout Barrett is wearing a platinum Marilyn Monroe wig and what appears to be a girdle and pantyhose. “We took three years off,” he explains (resorting back to the royal “we”). “We got pissed off, so we formed a band—the Lawn Sausages.”

ROUGH MIX

To the rescue: (l-r) organizer George Kansas, Mayor Jerry Jennings, organizer Don Dworkin and Palace Theatre general manager Jeff Yule.

photo:John Whipple

LOCAL LIVE AID Last Thursday (Jan. 20), Mayor Jerry Jennings and bands Sirsy, Hair of the Dog, the Burners UK, Doc Scanlon’s All-Star Revue and the Brian Kaplan Band got together at the Palace Theatre for a press conference to announce an upcoming benefit concert, called Rock 2 Rebuild, to raise money to help victims of the unfathomable tsunami that hit Southeast Asia last month. All above-named bands, plus a plethora of others, will be on hand to perform. Organizers promise that in addition to the extensive musical bill, the event will also feature surprise celebrity presenters and entertainers to keep the audience engrossed between sets. Also, additional live music will take place in the Palace lobby by the Delmar Caffeine Crew and others yet to be announced. A correlating art exhibit, the Art of Relief, works by local artists and children on the theme of the tsunami tragedy, will be on display. One hundred percent of ticket-sale proceeds and donations will go to tsunami-relief funds established and administered by Save the Children and Habitat for Humanity. Rock 2 Rebuild will take place on Friday, Feb. 11, at the Palace Theatre (19 Clinton Ave., Albany), from 7:30 PM to 12:30 AM. Tickets for the concert are $10. For more information or to donate to the cause, call 456-6363 or visit www.rock2rebuild.com. To order tickets, call 465-4663 or visit www.palace albany.org.

 

A BAND BY ANY OTHER NAME First there was Sean Rowe, a terrific singer-songwriter with great catchy songs like “A Snake in the Grass” that made his numerous live shows extremely popular. Then Sean Rowe met Marco Haber, a percussionist whose instruments of choice are the djembe and the doumbek—you gotta see this guy in action—and the two like performing together so much that they combined forces to become the Sean Rowe Project. Well, that name stuck for a while, but now the duo have decided to change their name once again. The new name—drumroll, please—is Mudfunk. In addition to their active gig schedule, Rowe and Haber will heed the numerous requests from their fans and hole themselves up in the studio through next month to record a new full-length album. They have yet to come up with a title, but speculation on their Web site is that the CD will be self-titled. They hope to have it ready for public consumption by early summer. In the meantime, you can listen to some live tracks recently recorded for a 104.9 radio show by visiting www.mudfunk.com. Catch Mudfunk at one of their gigs this week: They play tonight (Thursday, Jan. 27) at the Bayou (507 Saratoga Road, Glenville) at 8 PM; tomorrow (Friday, Jan. 28) at the other Bayou (79 N. Pearl St., Albany) at 5 PM; and Saturday (Jan. 29) at O’Callahan’s (14 Phila St., Saratoga Springs) at 8:30 PM.

 

MMM, ERFY Our local piano-tuning, bass-playing darling Jonathan Cohen has announced the completion of the Erftones’ third album, Dispatch. The new CD is chock-full of local talent: Besides Cohen on bass, you’ll hear Chad Ploss (of the Refrigerators) on drums, Keith Yaun on guitar, Brian Patneaude on tenor sax, Tim Williams (of the Refrigerators and Sensemaya) on alto sax, and Ben Acrish (also of the Refrigerators and Sensemaya) on trumpet. The album was recorded in the summer of 2004 by Seamus McNulty (check his business out at www.mumblesound.com) and mixed by John Delahanty (www.scarleteast.com) at Scarlet East studios in Albany. It was mastered by Larry Devivo (www.silvertone mastering.com). It’s available for sale in Albany at Border’s, Barnes & Noble, the Music Shack, Last Vestige and BlueSky Studios, and online at CDBaby.com. For more information on the new CD, visit www.erftones.com/dispatch.

 

WE ARE NOT DEMONIC ANDROIDS Local funk-rock group Honeycreeper’s debut full-length CD, Freakqualizer, was released on Jan. 4 on Planet A Records. Honeycreeper, made up of frontwoman Mandy Beck, Dan Beck, Sean Fortune and Seth Fisher, describe themselves as a “dirty, nasty, sexy, sweaty high-energy rock band that’s funky as hell.” Nasty is right—Mandy Lu says in her bio on the Honeycreeper Web site that she’s a Taurus, and therefore has violent mood swings and paranoia. Freakqualizer can be purchased at the band’s Web site, www.honeycreeper.net, and amazon.com, cdbaby.com, and, of course, at Honeycreeper shows.

 

ALMOST FAMOUS Speaking of new CDs, the Velmas released what they are calling a double EP (half of the songs are previously unreleased tracks and half are tracks recorded from live shows) on Dec. 28. The new CD, called Recess, includes the song “Restless, Restless,” which was selected out of thousands of entries as one of the top 20 finalists on Howard Stern’s much-publicized “Restless, Restless” contest—they even had a clip of their song played on Stern’s radio show last summer. For more information, visit www.thevelmas.com.

 

PARTY AT THE SKATE PARK Albany’s Shelter Skate Park (30 Commerce Ave.) will host an eclectic art show tomorrow (Friday, Jan. 28) at 7 PM. The free event features the works of local artists Greg Dunn, Stain and Tommy McGuire. Also, organizers are encouraging any interested people to bring in their art and display it. The event will also include a record swap, break dancers and local DJs. Contact the Shelter for more information at 438-2234 or e-mail ryan@theshelter.com.

—Kathryn Lurie

 


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