Guitar-forward Winter Blues Fest

To celebrate an area band’s new recording contract, the 14th New England Winter Blues Festival has a slight name change this year. It’s now A Gulf Coast Records Revue, with four acts from the venerable Nederland, Texas, label sharing the stage: Popa Chubby, Albert Castiglia, Monster Mike Welch and The Wicked Lo-Down.

The first of four shows lands at Manchester’s Rex Theatre on Thursday, Feb. 15, with the others happening across the region over the weekend. The run promises plenty of explosive guitar. Popa Chubby has been making waves in the blues world since legendary producer Tom Dowd helmed his solo debut in 1994. Castiglia is another firebrand, who one critic called the “heir apparent” to the title “America’s King of the Blues.”

Welch got his nickname as a teenager from Blues Brother Dan Aykroyd and is one of New England’s premier blues rock guitarists. He signed with Gulf Coast last year. Finally, The Wicked Lo-Down is led by festival organizer Nick David. Their lead guitarist is Paul Size, well-known for his time in The Red Devils, who worked with Mick Jagger and Bruce Willis while cementing its reputation across Texas.

The official release date for The Wicked Lo-Down’s Gulf Coast debut, Out of Line, is March 8, but the band will have advance CDs for sale and will play material from it at shows. It’s a solid collection of blues rockers, and all but two are originals. Standouts include “If I,” a love-gone-wrong burner that echoes the Allman Brothers’ “Stormy Monday,” and “The Wildest One,” a poignant tribute to Lester Butler, Size’s bandmate in The Red Devils.

“He would roll with the Stones, till that black hearted woman knocked him off his throne,” David sings, a reference to Butler’s tragic overdose death at age 38 that was later determined to be a homicide. In a similar vein, “Marchin’ On” deals with the notion that no one cheats death. Speaking by phone recently, David called it one of his favorites.

“It’s about our mortality,” he said. “No matter what, time’s gonna catch up with you and it’s just gonna keep marching on, and once you’re gone, time’s moving still.” All things considered, however, the singer and harmonica player appears to have had the most fun with one of Out of Line’s covers, a recasting of the Britney Spears pop confection “Toxic.”

“Say whatever you want about Britney Spears — it’s pop, bubblegum, whatever — but the changes in that song are cool … they’re minor and dark and edgy,” he said. “I started to hear in my head what it would sound like as a rock and blues tune. It made me think of the Stevie Ray Vaughan song “Change It.”

Unsurprisingly, David’s bandmates were incredulous. “They were like, ‘dude … what is this nonsense you’re talking about?’ I’m like, ‘man, listen, you gotta hear what I’m hearing in my head.’ I told Paul my concept; he messed around with it and he sent me a little demo of what he thought I wanted to hear, and it was exactly what I wanted to hear.”

Once in the studio, “we just turned it into this gnarly shuffle. It’s as gut bucket and Texas shuffling as you can get, but it’s a f-ing weird piece of bubble gum pop. I’m hoping it’s going to make people pay attention a little more outside of the blues world [and] redirect their attention back to the original songs that we wrote…. I think we got a bunch of killers.”

The five-piece band — David, Size, guitarist Jeff Berg (who also engineered) and the rhythm section of Brad Hallen and Nick Toscano on bass and drums — co-produced the record. Though the blues elements are apparent, The Wicked Lo-Down is looking to be more than vintage, David said.

“When people ask what kind of band we are, this is my little standard quote and I think it’s pretty accurate. We’re a very heavily blues-influenced rock ’n’ roll band. I’ll add this caveat: We’re a very, very heavily blues influenced all original rock ’n’ roll band. We’re doing our own thing.”

New England Winter Blues Festival presents Gulf Coast Records Revue
When: Thursday, Feb. 15, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Rex Theatre, 23 Amherst St., Manchester
Tickets: $35 at
Additional shows:
Friday, Feb. 16, 8 p.m. at Blue Ocean Music Hall, Salisbury Beach, Mass.
Sunday, Feb 18, 8 p.m. at Jimmy’s Jazz & Blues Club, Portsmouth

Featured photo: The Wicked Lo-Down Courtesy photo.

The Music Roundup 24/02/08

Local music news & events

  • Cowgirl jazz: Come for a light supper as the weekend approaches and enjoy Hot Skillet Club playing western-infused swing jazz. The acoustic trio of friends includes Val Blachly on upright bass and vocals, guitarist Liza Constable, who also plays with Blachly in Swing a Cat, and Ellen Carlson, a fiddler Blachly began working with in Sweet, Hot & Sassy, which had a 12-year run starting in the early 1990s. Thursday, Feb. 8, 6 p.m., Daniel’s Restaurant and Pub, 48 Main St., Henniker. See
  • Laugh along: An evening of standup comedy has Boston favorite Al Park along with a few special guests. Friday, Feb. 9, 7:30 p.m., Rex Theatre, 23 Amherst St., Manchester, $25 at
  • Valentine swing: Start with a dance lesson, then get on the floor with the 18-piece New Legacy Swing Band for an event dubbed Tunnel of Love. It promises moody lighting, a light food menu that starts with a glass of complimentary bubbly, and lots of chocolate and flowers paired with music ranging from Blood, Sweat & Tears, Brian Setzer and Chicago to Sinatra and Ella. Saturday, Feb. 10, 7 pm., Rockingham Ballroom, 22 Ash Swamp Road, Newmarket, $30 at
  • Sixties vibe: Conceived by New England native Brian Chartrand, Live from Laurel Canyon is a multimedia concert featuring the soundtrack of a generation, from the Byrds, Joni Mitchell, Buffalo Springfield and Mamas & the Papas to later standard-bearers like Jackson Browne, James Taylor, and The Eagles. Sunday, Feb. 11, 4 p.m., Bank of NH Stage, 16 S. Main St., Concord, $53.75 at
  • Carrying on: Closing in on four decades as a band, Big Head Todd & the Monsters is still the core trio that formed in 1986: Todd Park Mohr on guitar, keyboard, sax and harmonica, drummer Brian Nevin and Rob Squires on bass; second guitarist Jeremy Lawton joined 20 years ago. They recently dropped “Her Way Out,” from Thunderbird, their 12th album. Tuesday, Feb. 13, 8 p.m., Tupelo Music Hall, 10 A St., Derry, $55 and up at

At the Sofaplex

Orion and the Dark (TV-Y7)

Voices of Paul Walter Hauser, Jacob Tremblay.

Based on the book of the same name by Emma Yarlett, this animated movie tells the story of Orion (Tremblay), an 11-year-old boy who is afraid of so many things — murder clowns, cell phone radiation, aging planetarium displays, girls, people in general, Sally a girl in his class in particular and especially dark. He plugs in half a dozen night lights and begs his parents to leave the door open but if his room goes dark he screams.

Enough with the screaming, says Dark (voice of Hauser). A large cloaked yet sort of cuddly entity, Dark is tired of being hated by everybody but he is especially tired of hearing Orion yell and scream every night. So he decides that the best way to help Orion conquer his fear of the dark — and of Dark — is to take Orion with him for a 24-hour trip around the world. Dark introduces Orion to other nighttime entities: Insomnia (voice of Nat Faxon), Unexplained Noises (Golda Rosheuvel), Quiet (Aparna Nancheria), Sleep (Natasia Demetriou) and Sweet Dreams (voice of Angela Bassett). Some of their tasks are a little odd — Unexplained Noises decide that a crash with a hint of scraping is what’s needed outside one house — but they are part of the rhythms of life. And they have to keep going so that Light (voice of Ike Barinholtz) doesn’t overtake them. Light would knock Dark out of existence.

As Orion travels with Dark and friends, he slowly and sometimes indirectly overcomes or at least faces a variety of fears. The Dark — like other things in life — can be scary and sometimes we will be afraid but we have to keep going and not let fear itself overtake us, is generally the message here. But the movie makes its points with a swirl of sweetness and cleverness that, in a particularly Charlie Kaufman way (he is the screenwriter), lets the story comment on itself. The result is a story full of fun cartoony kid adventure but nice moments for adults as well. B+ Netflix

Self Reliance (R)

Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick.

Johnson also wrote and directed this dark comedy. Tommy plays a familiar Johnson character — sort of loveable shell-shocked goober in a life funk. He recently ended a two-decade-plus relationship and now lives with his mom, working a job that appears to barely keep him awake. Walking home from work one day, Tommy sees a limo pull up next to him with Andy Samberg (Andy Samberg) in the back. Andy, reading a script, offers Tommy a chance to compete in a dark web reality show. As he learns when he talks to the show’s creators, all Tommy has to do is stay alive for the next 30 days and he’ll win a million dollars. The catch is that other people — hunters — will be trying to kill him. The loophole is that he can’t be killed if he’s with other people. Tommy decides that not only does the loophole make the game winnable, it might actually be the reason to compete, so he says yes.

He explains to his mother (an excellent Nancy Lenehan, who at one point refers to “Sandy Amberg,” which is maybe my favorite part of the movie), sisters (Mary Holland, Emily Hampshire) and brother-in-law (Daryl L. Johnson) that they will need to trade off being with him around the clock to make it work. His family thinks he’s nuts and says absolutely not, leading Jake to hire a random guy he calls James (Biff Wiff) to follow him around. He also posts a call for someone to hang with on Craigslist — which is how he meets Maddy (Kendrick), who explains she’s also playing the game.

The movie quickly reaches a point of unhingedness when not only the characters, including Tommy, but we in the audience are not sure if Tommy is really competing for a million dollars or if he is in the midst of some kind of serious mental breakdown. It is, at times, unsettling but there is something about Johnson and his particular blend of earnestness, nuttiness, kindness and weirdness that makes it all work more often than not. B- Hulu

The Underdoggs (R)

Snoop Dogg, Tika Sumpter.

In The Mighty Ducks/Bad News Bears fashion, onetime football star Jaycen Jennings (Mr. Dogg) winds up coaching a down at the heels, down on its luck Long Beach kiddie football team. Actually, Jaycen is sentenced to do community service picking up poop at a Long Beach park (after crashing his car into a city bus due to unnecessary rage and some truly terrible driving) but when he sees high school sweetheart Cherise (Sumpter) pick up her young son Tre (Jonigan Booth) from the practice, he takes the advice of old friend Kareem (Mike Epps) to volunteer to coach to pull a Mighty Ducks and woo Cherise. Jaycen is at first just as selfish as a coach as he was as a player but slowly he learns about the beauty of teamwork and to truly root for these kids.

The kids in Underdoggs are young enough that this movie, with some slicing away of R-rated material (a lot of language and also weed talk), would make a fun family film. And really that’s what it should be. There’s only so “R “ you can be in an upbeat sports comedy about a kid team and I don’t think the movie benefits from the R-ness enough to make up for losing its natural family-film audience. As it is the movie feels like a fine-minus version of so many sports movies before it. C+ (the + is in part because it introduced me to the fact that Snoop Dogg actually has long supported a youth football league in the L.A. area and there is apparently a Netflix documentary series about it called Coach Snoop) Prime Video

Role Play (R)

Kaley Cuoco, David Oyelowo.

David (Oyelowo) and Emma (Cuoco) have a nice life with two children — Wyatt (Regan Bryan-Gudgeon) and Caroline (Lucia Aliu) — and a suburban house and a marriage that seems solid if a bit flat due to usual work-life balance stuff. Emma returns exhausted from a work trip to realize that the fancy dinner her husband has arranged is in celebration of their anniversary — which she completely forgot about. To spice things up they decide to head into the city and spend a night at a hotel — after first “meeting” in the bar playing the roles of new people, with the flirting etc.

Actually, inventing new identities is easier for Emma than David realizes. Her “work trip” wasn’t to the Midwest to talk to corporate middle managers. She went abroad to do a little light murdering. She works as an assassin, taking a contract or two every few weeks to help pay Raj (Rudi Dharmalingam), her handler who helps keep her image scrubbed from the internet and just generally keep her off the radar of Sovereign, the international assassination concern she used to work for before giving it all up for David and family life.

Before the couple can do their little sexy role play at the bar, Bob (Bill Nighy) buys Emma a drink and comes over to hit on her, drunken businessman style. Except not really, which Emma realizes. Eventually, Emma and David — pretending to be Alice and “Jack Dawson,” because David is bad at fake names — shoo Bob away and have their fancy meal. Later, when David falls asleep in their room, Emma goes to find Bob to deal with him, which doesn’t go as cleanly as she hopes. Soon there is police involvement and Emma is exposed for the secret assassin she really is. David isn’t sure what he believes, but he’s not entirely ready to turn his wife in to Gwen Carver (Connie Nielsen), the woman investigating Emma, who is really named Anna.

Not long ago, Mark Wahlberg starred in a similar super-assassin-turned-family-guy movie The Family Plan. That movie wasn’t great, but it had a more consistently comic tone. Role Play can’t quite decide if it is an action comedy or something darker, a drama with occasional comic hints but also kids in peril. Oyelowo seems to think he is in a comedy, Cuoco seems to think she’s in the darker thing. The actors are engaging enough together but they often seem like they’re operating on different frequencies. C+ Prime Video

Featured photo: Orion and the dark.

Argylle (PG-13)

A successful writer of spy novels finds herself hunted by real-life spies in Argylle, an action romantic comedy thing that feels more like cool images and parts of ideas pinned to a bulletin board than an actual movie.

The suave, James-Bond-like Agent Argylle (Henry Cavill with just some of the most unfortunate hair ever given to a man so handsome) is on the trail of a hard drive that will expose the Directorate, the super spy organization he works for. Once a good guy organization, the Directorate is now in league with bad guys, and Argylle wants to bring them down.

But Elly Conway (Bryce Dallas Howard), author of four published books and one unfinished book about fictional spy Argylle, is just sort of stuck when it comes to how the last part of Conway’s journey should unfold. On a phone call with her mom (Catherine O’Hara) she explains that her book ends on a cliffhanger. But her mom insists that she needs to finish the story — have Argylle go to London to meet the hacker, get the drive and take down his bosses. Elly tries but eventually Argylle is just standing on an empty page, giving her a confused look (possibly confused about why he would be given such a dumb green velvet-I-think suit and such terrible hair).

Elly decides to take a train to see her parents and is quickly accosted by a long-haired weirdo (Sam Rockwell) who claims to be a fan — well, first he says he’s a fan, then he says he’s a spy and he’s there to protect her. Before she can grab the cat-carrier-backpack containing her cat Archie and run, another “fan” stops at her seat to get an autograph — but the pen is really a stiletto and he seems ready to stab her. Long-hair fights him off and then fights off a series of other would-be kidnappers and/or assassins before grabbing Elly and parachuting her out of the train as it goes over a bridge.

When she awakens in some random cabin, long-hair is now shaven and shorn and says his name is Adrian Wilde. Adrian tells her that he is a spy who, like her characters, needs to find a hard drive to bring down the Division, a super secret spy agency very close to the one she described. The Division is who has sent its operatives after her because it, led by Director Ritter (Bryan Cranston), has read her fifth, unpublished book and wants to know how it ends, believing it will help him find the real-life hacker.

Adrian, looking for the hard drive just like Argylle, takes Elly to London so she can “write” what happens next and help him figure out where the hacker with all the Division-destroying information is. The Division remains hot on their trail, leading to a variety of shootouts and fight scenes and so much slow-mo this movie, played entirely at regular speed, is probably at least 15 minutes shorter.

In addition to Cavill, John Cena, Ariana DeBose and Dua Lipa play characters in Elly’s books, with Samuel L. Jackson and, briefly, Rob Delaney showing up in “real life.”

Argylle is a mess. Just writing the plot description, there are things we learn at the beginning of the movie that actually make no sense with what we learn later on or are just clunky or unnecessary. The movie doesn’t seem to figure out its vibe, maybe ever. It goes from wacky quiet-writer-lady-adventure (similar to Sandra Bullock in The Lost City) to full-on action cartoon like director Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman movies. I think, based on where this movie goes, maybe more of that cartoony action all the way through would be the way to go here. Instead that shows up just long enough to suggest a more tonally coherent version of this movie but not long enough to make Argylle actually be that version.

There are other problems. Howard is fine I guess, Rockwell is charming — together they are basically sparkless. Cranston feels like he belongs in the cartoonier version of this movie. Here, he feels en-dumb-ened by the movie, like his scary villain boss character, in absence of a more comic-book-y world around him, feels not smart enough for the job we’re supposed to believe he has. O’Hara just feels sort of ill served by everything the movie asks her to do — every scene she’s in had the potential to be funny or fun or weird in that delightful O’Hara way but the movie chooses a direction that just sort of dims her star.

This whole movie has, not potential exactly, but maybe the possibility to have potential. There are ideas that reach “hey, maybe there’s something in that?” stage but don’t go beyond that. As a result, I found myself not really enjoying this movie or even wanting to enjoy it but wishing it was a movie that I could potentially enjoy. C+, with the plus being largely for Sam Rockwell and his dislike of Archie, who looked like a mostly CGI cat, though a cat named Chip (the cat of Vaughn and his wife Claudia Schiffer) is credited on IMDb. (Meanwhile: There is apparently a mid-credits scene, which I did not stay for but read about later, and everything about it sounds exhausting.)

Rated PG-13 because these things are always rated PG-13 but officially for strong violence and action and some strong language, according to the MPA on Directed by Matthew Vaughn and written by Jason Fuchs (though the “written by” has its own story, feel free to Google, that somehow pulls in Taylor Swift because I guess everything has a Swiftian element now), Argylle is an unnecessary two hours and 19 minutes long and is distributed in theaters by Universal.

Featured photo: Aargylle.

First Lie Wins, by Ashley Elston

How far will you read into a book if you don’t like the protagonist? With her first novel directed toward adults, Ashley Elston is betting that we will keep reading so long as she provides little surprises around every corner, like Willy Wonka.

The formula seems to be working. The book was the January pick for Reese Witherspoon’s book club and has garnered praise as a suspenseful thriller. To which I say meh. Not that First Lie Wins doesn’t throw out many curve balls — it does. And an author’s ability to craft a didn’t-see-that-coming ending after multiple didn’t-see-that-coming chapters is rightly valued in a day when the storylines of much popular fiction are painfully predictable. That said, it’s nice to genuinely like at least somebody in a 300-page book.

We are supposed to kind-of, sort-of like the protagonist, initially introduced as Evie Porter, although we soon learn that Evie Porter is the latest in a long line of aliases. When we meet Evie she is suffering through a dinner in which she is meeting, for the first time, her boyfriend’s circle of friends — people who grew up much differently than she did.

“They are the ones who started kindergarten together, their circle remaining small until high school graduation. They fled town in groups of twos and threes to attend a handful of colleges all within driving distance of here. They all joined sororities and fraternities with other groups of twos and threes with similar backgrounds, only to gravitate back to this small Louisiana town, the circle closing once again.”

Evie, on the other hand, is a loner with a much different lineage. She’d grown up in a small town in North Carolina, an only child who lived with her single mom in a trailer. It was a wholesome enough environment — lots of love and dreams — until her mom got sick, and Evie started stealing jewelry from rich people at age 17 to help pay for her mother’s cancer treatment. (Which is why we’re supposed to kind-of, sort-of like her.) Her criminal skills landed her even more lucrative work as an operative for a shadowy criminal enterprise run by a mysterious Mr. Smith. She goes from job to job, always assuming a new identity that has been meticulously set up for her, in order to achieve some nefarious goal for her employer. Although she is described at one point as “morally gray,” it’s a dark shade of gray.

Evie’s latest job is to infiltrate the life of Ryan Sumner, an affable frat-boy-turned-businessman who inherited his grandfather’s house and business and is happily living as a bachelor in a a leafy suburb in Louisiana, a place where there’s a lot of money “but it’s the quiet kind.”

An attractive woman, Evie inserts herself into Ryan’s life with remarkable ease, setting up a “chance” meeting by having a flat tire at a gas station that she knows he visits every Thursday. She wears a short skirt, her intelligence having gathered knowledge that “his eyes almost always lingered too long on any female who crossed his path, especially those dressed in short skirts.”

There is much suspension of disbelief required here and throughout the book — that this single encounter leads to Evie’s moving in with Ryan a few months later, that this bachelor with a roving eye is suddenly ready for a long-term relationship — but OK. Again, surprises around every corner, and Elston has elegantly plotted this story, showing us snapshots of Evie’s other lives in flashbacks even as she easily settles into domestic bliss with Ryan. There are shades of the movie Pretty Woman, especially when Evie dons a big hat to wear to a Kentucky Derby party.

But things take a turn when an old friend of Ryan’s shows up at the party with a woman who looks astonishingly similar to Evie on his arm. Soon there’s another big reveal that will be the hook that drags us, however unwillingly, through the rest of the book. Evie, it turns out, is not the only person presenting herself as someone she’s not. And her unscrupulous employer has grown suspicious of her loyalty and has set out to test her, even as she tries to follow through with her “long con” of Ryan, while growing comfortable in the happy-couple-in-the-’burbs life.

Meanwhile, a fatal accident involving people in the couple’s circle leads to a police investigation that calls Evie’s background into question and the story shifts to a murder investigation in another state that one of Evie’s alter egos may or may not have been involved in. And we become aware that Evie is not a helpless pawn entrapped by a criminal mastermind, but that she has developed her own protective network, including an IT genius who’d entered MIT at age 17 but dropped out because he was bored and realized “the most profitable work isn’t always legal.”

Despite Elston’s efforts to paint her as a “good” criminal, there is little reflection — for either Evie or the reader — of the moral issues involved. She’s Walter White-like in this way: if a cancer diagnosis is involved when someone starts to break bad, we’re supposed to look the other way. And as in the Breaking Bad universe, there are plenty of other “morally gray” people in the cast of First Lie Wins. (And there will be a cast: the film rights have already been acquired.)

A little sober reflection of the moral issues involved — some Tony Soprano on the therapist’s couch — would have added complexity to the story, but slowed the pace — the story races to an every-mystery-resolved finish that is both a perfect Hollywood ending and an opportunity for countless sequels. Evie Porter will be with us for a while, I predict. Whether we like her or not.

B-Jennifer Graham

Album Reviews 24/02/08

Ekkstacy, Ekkstacy (United Masters Records)

This Vancouver, British Columbia-based singer is a mildly odd bird, extracting inspiration from a wide range of dark 1980s bands and SoundCloud rappers like XXXTentacion. I figured this’d be an unapologetic gesture of obeisance to his more gothy influences after hearing the Jesus and Mary Chain-begging opener, “I Don’t Have One of Those,” which, as you’d guess, turns in a half-asleep, very ’80s shoegaze effort, its beat straight out of the Cure’s earliest days. But there’s a more quickened pulse to be found here: “Luv of My Life” reads like a kinder, gentler Buzzcocks, or, sure, Pink Flag-era Wire, meaning that any Gen-Xer who wasn’t one of the popular kids will be feeling comforted by all they’ve heard of the album thus far. The guitars are jangly and bright, and the from-the-mountaintop reverb setting is right where you’d want it to be, and then suddenly he’s innovating rather nicely, as found in things like the shoegaze-twee experiment “I Guess We Made It This Far.” Very listenable stuff overall. A —Eric W. Saeger

Wisp, “See You Soon” (Interscope Records)

The latest Residents-style mystery artist is this one, allegedly a 19-year-old woman about whom no one knows anything. There are big things planned for this person, obviously, being that Interscope is the record label pushing it, not to mention the fact that there’s a writeup in Nylon, meaning that the intended audience is older zoomers who go to hair stylists, which is pretty much the only kind of place you’ll ever see that magazine, aside from maybe Sam Goody’s. The angle that’s being pushed is that there exists somewhere an army of young artists who want to resurrect shoegaze, or at least get briefly famous on TikTok for throwing together a tune like this one-off single, which, like her previous ones, is being offered without any explanation, background or anything else. If you think the whole thing sounds a bit odd, it is, but the guitars on this song are, I’ll admit it, completely divine, sloshing over the listener like an island wave at dusk. That’s the clean guitar layer anyway; the rest of it could be Raveonettes for all most listeners would guess. But sure, carry on, mystery TikTok person. A- —Eric W. Saeger


A seriously abridged compendium of recent and future CD releases

• Tally ho, there will be new albums released this Friday, Feb. 9, because that’s how it’s done around here! Winter is sure setting in, with random snowstorms and “frost heaves,” I wonder who made up that phrase, an abominable snowman after drinking a few too many Jagermeisters? Bop! I’ll be here all week, folks, no need to worry, but let’s get to some music stuff, starting with Part Time Believer, the new album from alleged alt-country band The Strumbellas, who are from Ontario, Canada! I listened to one of their older tracks, “Holster,” and it’s a decent curveball, nice and bouncy, sort of like what Guster would sound like if they had a pulse, but the lyrics are dumb, which is OK! As for this new album, it starts out with “Running Out of Time,” which is part ’80s-synthpop and part Jackson Browne ’70s-radio-mawkishness; it’s nice overall. The singer does sound a lot like Jackson Browne, which is why I mentioned him, but it gets better with “My Home is You,” which is obviously influenced by Kings of Leon — wait, here comes the chorus, yes, yes, definitely a Kings of Leon obsession here. There’s even a variation of the Millennial Whoop in there to remind you that the guys in the band are getting old; this’ll probably come out pretty cool when they play it live. See that, I don’t hate everything, now let’s move along and get back to normal, I’m sure I’ll get triggered as we proceed.

• Oi there, Bob’s your uncle, Declan McKenna is an English chap who won the Glastonbury Festival’s Emerging Talent Competition in 2015, that after he self-released a tune called “Brazil,” which was a protest song critical of FIFA’s deciding to hold the World Cup in Brazil in 2014, which made for bad optics. FIFA is of course the international soccer federation, but don’t call it soccer or they won’t know what you’re talking about, you must refer to it as “football,” please nobody tell them that football is actually about the Super Bowl and funny commercials, not soccer, because this ongoing national troll has been funny for decades now. McKenna’s new LP is titled What Happened To The Beach, and the leadoff single from this one is “Nothing Works.” The beat sounds like a cross between The Beatles and Devo, all tempered by Weeknd-ish dance-electro. It’s mildly catchy and definitely disposable.

• I’m sure you were wondering who actually cleared a path for the emergence of Poppy, and here she is, Sacramento, California-based singer-songwriter Chelsea Wolfe! She blends a lot of harder-edged genres into her tunes, stuff like goth-rock, doom metal and noise, which makes her officially relevant. Her new album, Reaches Out To She Reaches Out To She, features a couple songs of note, starting with “Dusk,” a slow-burn noise-athon in which Wolfe tenders a yodelly Alanis Morissette vocal over the sonic equivalent of a goth lava flow. As well, there’s “Whispers In The Echo Chamber,” which combines scratchy Trent Reznor S&M-goth and Lana Del Rey whisper-pop. I really have no problem with this stuff at all.

• Lastly, it’s Zara Larsson, a Beyoncé-influenced dance-pop singer who got her start in 2008, after winning the second season of Talang, the Swedish version of all that America’s Got Talent stuff; she’s famous for tweeting such tweets as “Man hating and feminism are two different things. I support both,” because she is a little rascal. Venus is her forthcoming new LP; famous music producer and overrated fraud David Guetta had a hand in the single “On My Love,” so it’s probably dumb, but I’ll go check it out if you insist. Yup, it sounds like Rihanna singing over a house beat from 2008. I remember those days and why the whole thing flopped. —Eric W. Saeger

Mardi Gras takes the cake

Special dessert sweetens pre-Lent festivities

They don’t call it Fat Tuesday for nothing.

Celebrated around the globe with exuberant parades, exotic masks and the throwing of colorful beads and trinkets, Mardi (the French word for “Tuesday”) Gras (which means “fat”) is renowned for gastronomic indulgence, and Mardi Gras King Cake is the ultimate tasty extravagance.

Just ask Denise Nickerson, owner of The Bakeshop on Kelley Street, who knows a thing or two about delicious treats. A graduate of a Le Cordon Bleu-affiliated school, Nickerson has training in French cooking and baking that made her aware of the significance of using real butter, vanilla and heavy cream and not scrimping in any way.

“You can taste the difference,” she said. “And our customers can taste the difference.”

Mardi Gras King Cakes, which harken back to the story of the three kings who paid homage to the newly born Jesus, are a staple of Carnival and have been sold at The Bakeshop since the year it opened. “I opened The Bakeshop in 2010 with the intent of sharing some of my favorite sandwiches and desserts — I love dessert! — and have been successfully selling them for the past almost 15 years,” Nickerson said. “I am always excited to make Mardi Gras King Cakes as they are whimsical, delicious, and, of course, have a baby inside!”

According to Mardi Gras tradition, the lucky individual who finds the tiny figurine hidden in the bread is considered king or queen for the day and is encouraged to provide a cake for the following year’s festivities, host a party, or otherwise perpetuate the revelry.

“Mardi Gras King Cakes are sweet and fun to make,” Nickerson said about the treats, which are said to have originated in France and made their way to New Orleans in the late 19th century. “They are made with our sweet bread recipe, spread with our cinnamon butter, rolled and then formed into a circle or ring. As we roll them, we place the plastic baby in the bread. Next comes a coating of glaze and then the fun part — alternate colors of purple, yellow and green sprinkles, which represent Mardi Gras season.” (According to historians, the colors used to decorate these Carnival confections signify justice, power and faith.) “The cakes are then boxed or placed on pastry trays, and we like to add a couple of Mardi Gras bead necklaces to help in the celebration.”

Mardi Gras is always the day before Ash Wednesday, offering believers one last chance to binge on rich foods before the beginning of the austere season of Lent, a 40-day period leading up to Easter Sunday that emphasizes abstinence, fasting and repentance.

Fat Tuesday, which this year falls on Feb. 13, is not surprisingly The Bakeshop on Kelley Street’s biggest day of Mardi Gras King Cake sales, “but we are willing and able to make them anytime for any celebration,” said Nickerson, adding, “Pre-ordering is recommended as we tend to run out quickly!” The Bakeshop will also open its doors on Tuesday, when it is normally closed, to keep up with the seasonal demand.

In addition to Mardi Gras King Cakes and other cakes of all kinds, the Manchester bake shop and cafe is well-known for its array of doughnuts, pies and pastries, as well as a savory menu featuring quiche, soups, chili, and sandwiches served on their own freshly baked bread.

“A lot of my recipes were passed down from my grandmothers, mother, sister and aunts,” said Nickerson. “I’ve found that many people relate to them, as they are simple reminders of flavors and tastes from childhood and beyond. Also, most importantly, using ingredients that are high-quality and often come from local growers and producers makes having a dessert worth it. I always say, if you are going to have dessert, make sure it’s something made well and worth it!”

Nickerson readily admitted that “not everyone might know about the King Cakes.” However, she added, “the ones that do [know] or that try them [for the first time] always come back. It’s a celebration of sweetness and a way to … be a part of the Mardi Gras season.”

Mardi Gras King Cake
The Bakeshop on Kelley Street
171 Kelley St., Manchester

Featured photo:King Cake. Courtesy Photo.

Feeling chili?

Try Amherst’s best at the Lions Club cookoff

Warm up on a chilly Friday night at Fire & Ice, the Amherst Lions Club’s 8th annual chili cookoff and ice cream social. The event takes place Friday, Feb. 9, from 5 to 7 p.m. at Amherst Middle School.

Entrants will be serving 2 gallons of chili each in people’s choice, restaurant, and Lions Club categories. The chili is all you can eat until the slow cookers are empty.

“You go through the line and you can select as many different kinds of chilis as you want,” explained Amherst Lion Joan Ferguson. Each contestant has a number that is written on their bowls, so you can keep track of your favorites and go back for seconds if you wish.

A panel of judges will be grading the chilis on taste, smell, heat, creativity and presentation. The judges will select the winner for the restaurant and Lions Club categories, and give feedback on the people’s choice entries as well. However, attendees vote for the people’s choice winner. While people’s choice could theoretically be awarded to any category, in the history of the event an individual has always won people’s choice, said Ferguson.

This year’s judges will be Dan DeCourcey, Up in Your Grill owner and pitmaster; Amherst Police Chief Anthony Ciampoli, and local chili connoisseur Chad Camirand, described by Ferguson as having a “discriminating palate.”

Expect a wide variety of chilis, including some you may never have encountered before. There are usually traditional recipes, green chili, veggie, chicken and more, said Ferguson. One year, Cincinnati Chili, traditionally served over spaghetti, was a big hit. In 2020 two middle school students worked with their aunt to make a chili with great ingredients and spices and won people’s choice.

On the divisive debate of beans or no beans, Feguson said, “It’s about evenly divided — it really and truly is.”

The restaurant category this year will include an entry from previous winner Moulton’s Kitchen and Market. The Amherst Lions will be going head to head with the Bedford Lions for the best Lions Club chili, which no club has ever won consecutively.

Each winner will get a silver bowl trophy to keep until next year’s event, engraved with their name. They’ll also get a long-handled wooden spoon engraved with ‘Chili Master.’ And of course, they get to brag about having the best chili in town for a whole year.

The event will also include a make-your-own ice cream sundae bar, hot dogs, face painting, and a visit from Officer Berry — a yellow lab puppy who is Amherst Police Department’s new therapy dog. Weather permitting, there will also be ice skating and a bonfire at the school’s outdoor rink.

The Lions Club will also be providing free eye screenings, one of their philanthropic causes, and they’ll be raffling off a Napoleon Rogue propane grill.

“Winter is getting a little long in the tooth by February,” Ferguson said, so several years ago a member of the club came up with this event so the town could gather over a meal. “The community is able to get together on a cold winter’s night — there’s eating, there’s entertainment, there’s a lot of talking. It’s good to get everyone out of the house.”

If you want to try all the chilis, especially the crowd favorites, make sure you come early.

“Their Crockpots tend to empty out well before the two hours are up,” Ferguson said.

Fire & Ice Chili Cookoff and Ice Cream Social
When: Friday, Feb. 9, 5 to 7 p.m.
Where: Amherst Middle School, 14 Cross Road, Amherst
Tickets: $10 for adults, $6 for children 7 to 12, free for ages 6 and under. Families of four or more can buy a family ticket for $30. Purchase tickets at or at the door.

Featured photo: Last year’s chili cooks Irene Pyle (left) and granddaughter Charley Pyle will return to the Fire & Ice competition Feb. 9th at the Amherst Middle School.

Local farmers get together

NOFA winter conference fosters community

The Northeast Organic Farming Association of New Hampshire (NOFA-NH) will host its 22nd annual Winter Conference on Saturday, Feb. 10, at Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester. The event will include panel discussions, workshop sessions, awards and a keynote address by off-grid homesteader Philip Ackerman-Leist.

“As one of the founding chapters of the Northeast Organic Farming Association dating back to the early 1970s, NOFA-NH began with the hope of bringing together the organic community and building traction for the important work of sustainable agriculture in our state and region,” said event coordinator Kyle Jacoby. “The conference has taken on many shapes and sizes over the years, but some things remain the same. Every conference is filled with impactful workshops, local organizations and businesses, delicious food, a keynote address, and community bonding.”

According to Jacoby, the Winter Conference helps to foster the Granite State’s organic farming and gardening community, allowing participants to share knowledge, get energized, and support local, sustainable, healthy food.

“Every event is a place to continue learning and understanding organic practices, have discussions about our local food networks, connect with others in the community to discuss how to work together, recognize members of the community who are doing valuable work, and build enthusiasm for the work ahead,” Jacoby said.

NOFA-NH’s Winter Conference typically welcomes 200 to 300 people from throughout New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont and Massachusetts, Jacoby said. “This includes farmers, gardeners, nonprofit management, food distributors, politicians, students, educators and more. Members of this entire community convene at the Winter Conference because of the workshops that are offered, networking opportunities, and the chance to engage in important dialogue about the future of food in our state.”

Workshop topics will include growing techniques, business strategies, food systems, crop management, best practices for high tunnel construction, making tea from your garden, creating a diverse, inclusive and equitable food system in New Hampshire, policy and regulatory tools for small food producers, perfecting greenhouse tomatoes, and more. Sessions are geared toward farmers, gardeners, nonprofit professionals, educators, and community members interested in local food, sustainable agriculture, and cultivating community.

“The conference is also a perfect opportunity to learn new skills, develop important connections with local organizations and businesses, and recognize members of our community and the work they are doing,” Jacoby said.

This year’s keynote speaker is Philip Ackerman-Leist, author of A Precautionary Tale: How One Small Town Banned Pesticides, Preserved its Food Heritage, and Inspired a Movement and Rebuilding the Foodshed: How to Create Local, Sustainable, and Secure Food Systems.

“Philip has an incredible history of the past four decades exploring what it means to have a sustainable and equitable food system,” Jacoby said. “We are excited to hear the stories from his experiences with policy efforts for pesticide-free communities, ‘aha!’ moments in educational systems, innovative shifts in local supply chains, lessons in agritourism, and increased financial support for ecological stewardship.” Ackerman-Leist’s address will highlight some of his experiences collecting stories of food systems across the U.S. and abroad.

Involved with NOFA-NH for two years, Jacoby acknowledges the dedicated team, passionate volunteers, members, and supporters who work together toward a more local, just and sustainable food system.

“It is a joy to work with these people and celebrate the successes of our work,” Jacoby said. “You can see how gratifying that is at the Winter Conference when we present awards to members of our community to recognize the amazing work they are doing and have done. We certainly have challenges ahead but also so much to be proud of and grateful for.”

NOFA-NH annual Winter Conference
When: Saturday, Feb. 10
Where: Southern New Hampshire University, 2500 N. River Road, Manchester; check-in at dining center, workshops at Robert Frost Hall
Tickets: available on a sliding scale ranging from $20 (keynote only) to $125.

Featured photo: Courtesy photo.

The Weekly Dish 24/02/08

News from the local food scene

Valentine’s Day is Wednesday, Feb. 14, and if you haven’t made those dinner reservations yet, now is definitely the time. A few of the dinner and take out offerings announced on area restaurants’ websites and social media pages include:

Averill House Vineyard in Brookline ( has multiple Valentine’s Day themed events on its schedule including a Galentine’s Felting Workshop & Wine Tasting on Friday, Feb. 9, at 6 p.m.; Valentine’s Bottle Your Own Experience at various times Sundays, Feb. 11, and Feb. 18; Valentine’s Igloo Experience Dinner & Wine Pairing on Wednesday, Feb. 14, at 7 p.m., and a five-course dinner and wine pairing, also on Valentine’s Day at 7 p.m.

The Bakeshop on Kelley Street in Manchester ( has chocolate covered strawberries, among other sweet treats.

Bedford Village Inn in Bedford ( is offering a four-course meal for $125 per person with seating times between 5 to 9:30 p.m. See the website for the menu (which includes options for either desserts for sharing or a dessert of your own) and to reserve a table.

Birch Wood Vineyards in Derry ( has a four-course dinner planned (doors open at 6 p.m. for a cocktail hour before dinner) with a vegetarian option — $95 or $120 with wine pairing. Call to reserve by Sunday, Feb. 11.

Bistro 603 in Nashua ( will offer its Valentine’s Day specials Feb. 14 through Thursday, Feb. 22, ccording to a Facebook post.

Order chocolate-covered strawberries from Buckley’s in Merrimack or Hollis by Monday, Feb. 12, for a Valentine’s Day pickup. A half-pound is $18, a full pound is $36.

The Farm Bar & Grille in Manchester ( will have a Valentine Trivia Night at 8 p.m. with food and drink specials to go with Heathers rom-com related trivia.

• Check out the menu of specials at Firefly in Manchester (, which includes a red velvet cheesecake and the strawberry chocolate old-fashioned. The specials will be offered along with the regular menu.

Frederick’s Bakery in both Amherst and Bedford ( has offerings including single-serving desserts like cookies and cupcakes, full-size cakes, chocolates and chocolate-covered strawberries and a Valentine’s cookie decorating kit.

Giorgio’s ( has a special on its website for Sunday, Feb. 11 (game day) — reasonable people can argue over which is the bigger holiday. On Feb. 14, Manchester and Milford Giorgio’s are open from 4 to 9 p.m. and Merrimack is open from noon to 8 p.m., according to the website, where you can make reservations.

Granite State Candy Shoppe in Manchester and Concord ( has a variety of Valentine’s offerings including chocolate-dipped strawberries; red foil wrapped heart-shaped and lip-shaped chocolates; heart boxes with chocolates, and more.

The Grazing Room at Colby Hill Inn in Henniker ( will have seatings 4 to 8 p.m.; see the evening’s menu on the website.

The Hills Restaurant at Hampshire Hills Athletic Club in Milford ( will have its Valentine Specials menu available Tuesday, Feb. 13, through Saturday, Feb. 17.

LaBelle Winery ( has multiple Valentine’s- and chocolate-themed events at its Derry and Amherst locations. Events that, as of Feb. 5, had openings include a Valentine’s Day dinner with ballroom dancing in Derry on Saturday, Feb. 10; a Sinatra in Love dinner with performer Rich DiMare and the Iron Poster Trio in Amherst on Wednesday, Feb. 14, and Cooking with Wine & Chocolate classes in Amherst (Feb. 15) and Derry (Feb. 21).

Murphy’s in Manchester posted a drinks menu that includes items such as Chocolate Craze (vanilla vodka, chocolate liqueur and Baileys with a chocolate drizzle) and Cotton Candy Kiss (Champagne with a cotton candy base). Murphy’s Taproom & Carriage House in Bedford has a Valentine’s Day prix fixe menu for $60 per person as well as a romantic dining package for $40 per couple; see

Pearls Candy and Nuts in Windham ( has a variety of themed offerings including red foil wrapped chocolate hearts.

Van Otis Chocolates in Manchester and Wolfeboro ( has a variety of Valentine’s treats including chocolate-dipped bottles, special boxed chocolates, gift boxes, chocolate-dipped strawberries and more.

• Maybe you can’t go to Europe for Valentine’s Day but you can get candies and chocolates that come from Europe at Viking House in Concord (, which is open from 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on Wednesdays.

Vine Thirty Two in Bedford ( is offering a “Partners in Wine” special Wednesday, Feb. 14, through Friday, Feb. 16 — $100 includes two $25 wine cards, a five-item charcuterie board and a dessert to share.

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