Boston rock scene

Whistlestop Rock: Full-Throttle Rock Fest Rumbles Thru New England

The rock and roll package tour, or travelling music festival, has a long history. They started in the Fifties and continued with such events as the 1970 Festival Express, Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue and later summer-shed happenings like Lollapalooza and the Lilith Fair. Here in New England, we are being treated to a regional version of this called the Whistlestop Rock Fest. It began with a bravura 8-hour show in January at the Askew club in Providence. It continues of Feb. 29th at the ONCE ballroom in Somerville, Mass. and there are several other dates upcoming. See whistlestoprock.com for full info on show dates.


Justine and the Unclean

“The Little Festival that Could” began with a casual online chat last year between Justine Covault (of Boston alt-rock favorites Justine and the Unclean) and Simone Berk, who fronts the power-pop quartet Kid Gulliver. The idea of getting all their friends’ bands together for a big show “caught fire” (as Covault said in a recent Providence Journal article) and soon the dialogue extended to several other woman musicians in the area. The rock music scene in my neck of the woods has long been known for its camaraderie, so it’s little surprise that, as Berk said in the same piece, “Next thing you know, we knew we had to do it.”


Kid Gulliver w/ Simone Berk in green jacket.

What resulted, after much legwork by all involved, was a curated festival that involves up to nine bands. All are co-ed or all-women groups and guest spots are promised at each gig. At the Providence show, it was clear just how well this concept was planned, with its quick succession of 45-minute sets. With so many groups, there was practically a built-in audience, supplemented by fans and friends coming down from the Boston area and a local Rhodey contingent lured by hometown faves Heather Rose in Clover and the promise of an all-star jam of other Providence rockers. HRIC would be be for me the revelation of the night, showing Whistlestop’s underlying value: turning local favorites into regional ones. But more on them later.

Views from Askew. From top to bottom: Heather Rose in Clover, Chelsea Curve, the Knock-ups. (Photos by author)


When I first ambled into Askew a little after 4:00 PM, Field Day was near the start of their set. Like many of the other groups on the bill, they played pretty straight-ahead rock with a fierce self-actualization. According to their own bio, Field Days’ members found themselves formed “unexpectedly, when its members were well into middle age.” This is not so unusual nowadays esp. when members have backlogs of material waiting to be heard. The band is led by former Boston Globe music critic Joan Anderman and fellow Globie Dan Zedek, a veteran of several area bands. The song “Finished With You” shows they were more than ready to hit the ground running.

Cold Expectations play in a more rootsy, country-rock style that builds on the genre’s early 70s heyday as well as later practitioners like Green on Red. Singer-songwriter-acoustic guitarist Steve Prygoda, bassist/back-up vox JoEllen Saunders, drummer Nancy Delaney and lead guitarist Bob Metzger have made a fine craft out of thoughtful, fully-arranged numbers like “Aliza Don’t Care.” I’ve known Prygorda for some time and way back when I did some videos for an earlier, more hardcore outfit. Those other roots were also apparent as the Expectations finished with the Camper van Beethoven barn-burner “Take the Skinheads Bowling,” which has become a bit of a regular finale with them.

Steve later told me of his love-hate relationship with cover versions. That’s understandable for any band that works hard to get their own material heard but is also an ice-breaker for people getting to know you. Most bands struck the balance of mixing in one or two classic-rock standards. The Knock-ups are one of the more high-profile bands playing the Whistletop, along with Justine and the Unclean and Maine’s garagecore stars Tiger Bomb, who were unable to play this first date. (Tiger Bomber and co-organizer Lynda Mandolyn was there and made a cowbell cameo during the Unclean’s later set). The brassy Knock-ups are first-rate practitioners of the kind of bristling rock attack that’s been a big part of the Boston scene since the glory days of the late, lamented Rat punk club (see related post). Singer-guitarist Gretchen Shae (who was invited up onstage to play a song with U2 a few years back) delivered several thrashers from the group’s growing catalogue and threw in a good cover as well (“Ring of Fire”). Bassist Cat Verlico confirmed the band’s knack for cagey humor, singing “I Hate Your Facial Hair.” That number was met with approval from your clean-shaven correspondent.

Kid Gulliver were maybe a little less snazzy (except for Simone Berk’s glittery shoes!) but confident material like “You’ll Never Know” and “Suzie Survived Chemotherapy” were a fantastic blend of Blondie/X era and riot grrl. This natural alchemy of styles from Nuggets-era garage to 90s grunge inform a lot of indie-rock nowadays, as was evident from the closing act Powerslut, who unfortunately are doing their farewell show at the next stop of the tour on Feb. 29th (at the ONCE ballroom in Somerville, MA).


Back on the subject of cover versions, Kid Gulliver do a great take on the old 10cc hit “I’m Not in Love.”

But most bands have their own little spin on it, like Chelsea Curve with their Mod influence (their cover was an awesome take on the Jam’s “In the City”). The irrepressible singer/bassist Linda Pardee, along with guitarist Tim Gillis and drummer Ron Belanger excel both in the more classic melodic punk style of “Don’t look Down” and in their more quirky material like the ditty they wrote explaining how to decode the weather beacon atop the old John Hancock building in Boston.

Heather Rose in Clover were up next. Singer/guitarist Heather Rose had been sporting a Belly t-shirt during the local all-star session. Belly (who gained some MTV notoriety in the early 90s) also hailed from the Ocean State and were led by Tanya Donnelly, who before that co-fronted Newport-based cult favorites Throwing Muses along with Kristin Hersh. HRIC have some of Muses’ adventurous spirit, their indie-rock attack colored with passages of psychedelic guitar from Rose, complemented with the bass interplay of Lisa Middleton and the deft drumming of Chris Alvarado. Their original songs are sharp and declarative, using (in their words) “the sharp end of their own broken hearts” in such fierce broadsides like “Satellites” and “Go Back to Ohio.” Better still was the barbed wit that fed a song like “Welcome to New England” (with its memorable line “I had to scrape Antartica off my windshield”). They also killed on high-profile covers of “Under Pressure” and “Psycho Killer.”

Justine and the Unclean have been plying their superlative power-pop-punk through two kick-ass albums on Rum Bar Records, Get Unclean and Heartaches and Hot Problems. When listening to these songs, you wonder to yourself (as with many of these groups) how aren’t these guys huge? In Justine Covault they have a diminutive dynamo of a singer-songwriter-focal point. Her razor-sharp lyrical wit and fiery vocals, plus the relentless instrumental momentum provided by bassist Janet Egan King, lead guitarist Charles Hansen and powerhouse drummer Jim Janota (formerly of Boston rock institutions the Bags and Upper Crust) make songs like “Rock and Roll Blackmail’, “Monosyllabic Man” and “Bring Me Fire” into forces of nature.

Click below for kick-ass rock & roll (and great video-making) from Justine and the Unclean and, below that, the unstoppable Tiger Bomb!

But it’s mostly rhetorical asking why the Unclean or Tiger Bomb, or whoever your fave local rockers are, aren’t huge in this day and age. We all know what rules the pop-music roost on a national and global stage: you can see it each week on “Saturday Night Live” when the latest Instagram pop act trundle thru another redundant set piece that is 90% choreography and 10% bad music. Rock may have lost its pop-culture supremacy to hip-hop and the latest American Idol-style sensation but you would hardly know it here. The sisterly solidarity, hard work and self-supporting vibe is admirable, esp. considering the day jobs and the odd kid to raise. Hopefully, the Whistlestop Rock concept can continue and even expand on this current model. What’s most impressive is the skill and all-out energy of these bands, with members ranging from roughly their mid-20s to mid-60s, rocking out and writing songs in group collaborations that blessedly cuts against the grain of today’s empty ideas of viral “success.” This is the real deal, so catch it while you can: this here rock & roll train is bound for glory.
(Again, stop by the Whistlestop Rock Facebook group or whistlestoprock.com for full details)
—Rick Ouellette

Kingdom of Love in the Boston Rock Scene: It Takes a Village to Raise a Rock Star

Text by Rick Ouellette
Band photos by Joshua Pickering

Kingdom of Love are a great example of the current collaborative nature of the Boston-area rock scene, which I’ve been following to various degrees since the gloriously grungy late 70s heyday of the Rat club in Kenmore Square. KOL is the duo of singer-songwriter-guitarists Linda Viens and Richard Lamphear. On their luminous 5-song EP called Ghosts they use a few guest players (mainly on bass and drums) to supplement their sound. But for their late June record release party at the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge, Kingdom of Love became like a glam-rock juggernaut with as many as eight players at a time. This goes a long way to demonstrating the supportive and intermingling nature of the current indie community in town, which is chock full of friends and acquaintances who came up in the vibrant 80s post-punk scene. But more on that later, what about the CD?


Linda Viens (right) and Sandra Marcelino

Ghosts begins in quiet-time mode with “Play it On”and a reflective piano motif and Vien’s airy vocal expressing a wide-view reverie on a life where “the song’s never finished.” Even after the drums kick in the song gives the impression of floating over a lush landscape. Through the four remaining tracks the same balm to the senses prevails even when they’re pumping up the dance beats, such a welcome vibe in these unsettling times. “Two Souls” has a bouncy New Wave-style keyboard hook and a sharp and sensuous lyric about two searching lakeside lovers and would be a big summertime hit in a more just world. The next two songs are finely-crafted duets between Viens and Lamphear. The first, “When You Follow,” is notable for its love-in-the-ruins lyric and Scott Getchell’s haunting trumpet, while “Starmates” is a vaporous outer-space romance.

The electro dance-rock groove returns for “Karma Song, which, along with “Two Souls, ” is the pick-to-click of this CD. “I was a superhero buried underground,” declares the song’s narrator, “I was that grown-up kid afraid to make a sound/Live in fear too long and there is no one else on whom to lay the blame.” The struggle for self-actualization has rarely sounded so rapturous. It will hard not to get swept up in this tune by the time Linda gets to the buoyant chorus (“I want to give, give again and earn my karma”) for the second time and Richard lets it rip on lead guitar.

Those positive reverberations were even more evident at the record-release show where the enthusiastic crowd was all in as soon as Viens stepped up to the center mike in an all-silver suit. Viens fronted a large funk orchestra called the Crown Electric Company in the late 90s so this expanded set-up is not an unknown quantity for her. The talented ensemble seen below is a good example of the Boston scene’s current mix-and-match flexibility where many musicians take time from their current bands to get involved in other projects.


The super-sized Kingdom of Love. from l to r: Sue Minichiello, Ben Aiken (keys), Sandra Marcelino, Gabe Rossi, Johnny Berosh (drums), Linda Viens, Zachary Rochester and Richard Lamphear.

Back-up singers Sue and Sandra were also involved in the recent well-received production of Hair by the revived Boston Rock Opera and BRO director Eleanor Ramsay designed Ghosts dazzling jacket art. Linda, who has sung in many past BRO productions, assumed the role of costume designer for Hair, while Zachary Rochester (the bass player at the show) had a lead role as Hud. This kind of fluid musical community, and KOL’s overall holistic approach to their craft, is a very encouraging sign and would be a great model for young musicians starting out in a field where it can be tough sledding most of the time. A local support system in the end can more gratifying than the current lone-wolf pop star model. There it seems the thought is the only was to the top is trying your luck on a TV talent show in front of a panel of celebrity judges who are likely to gush over anything but where in the end there is only “winner.” Instead, be like Kingdom of Love and find your tribe, work hard until you come up with a line as good as “I was a superhero buried underground” and in the end you may just earn all the good karma you’d ever want.

Find out more at https://kingdomoflovemusic.com/
To see my previous post about the Boston Rock Opera click https://rickouellettereelandrock.wordpress.com/2016/10/20/the-return-of-the-boston-rock-opera-the-moon-is-back-in-the-7th-house/

Rick Ouellette’s new book Rock Docs: A Fifty-Year Cinematic Journey is now available online or by messaging the author. A 30-page excerpt can be seen at http://booklocker.com/books/8905.html (Or click on the book cover in the right-hand column here)