Folk singer

Jake McKelvie solo project plays Milford

Few New England songwriters have Jake McKelvie’s command of clever wordplay. In just two lines from “Eat Around the Pudding,” from 2020’s delightful LP Here’s What You Do, he rhymes homeowner, combover and organ donor while still delivering a jaunty tune that’s either a breakup song or musical self-therapy. It’s hard to tell which.

The fun continues on a new solo McKelvie project that’s separate from his longtime band the Countertops. A preview of the 12-song collection due later this year promises an album sparkling with charm.

On various tracks, McKelvie alludes to Rodney Dangerfield, drily notes that a fire in the belly can’t heat a room, and tells the object of his affection, “it’s a lie to imply you complete me, but you’re still a big part of the meal,” sung in a voice that walks the wire between childlike wonder and crusty bemusement. It’s all simply delightful.

A new, as yet unnamed band will back McKelvie at Union Coffee Co. in Milford on March 30. It includes bassist Mike Holland (Dutch Tulips) and Countertops drummer Matt Bacon, along with a second guitar player, a position that’s being filled by a few different people based on availability.

McKelvie’s lyrical sensibility remains, but musically, it’s something of a pivot. “Which is another one of the reasons why it’s kind of distinct from Countertops stuff,” he said in a recent phone interview. “The songs are a little bit slower. I don’t wanna say slow per se, but it leans more into the folk-like, songwriter aspect of what I do as opposed to the kind of rambunctious goofy thing that the Countertops lean into more.”

The impetus for starting a new effort came down to scheduling. Fewer Countertops gigs meant bass player Nick Vontruba and Bacon had to fill in the gaps.

“Basically, everyone’s got their hands in a few different projects,” McKelvie said. “That’s just the way things go.”

Creatively, he was feeling another pull.

“I had a batch of songs that I’ve been eager to do something with, and it just wasn’t really feasible for us to do them with the group,” McKelvie said. “We haven’t broken up or anything, we’re just kind of in a dormant phase. We’ll still probably play shows here and there and whatnot, but this is what feels right to do right now.”

The new band formed in November and has played a handful of shows, including four so far this year.
“It’s been kind of a slow build-up,” McKelvie said. “Now the record is finished; I’m figuring out release plans. I’ve got a tour mostly booked for April and I’m starting to work on some additional tours for later in the year.”

Both Bacon and Holland played on the forthcoming album. “They’re locked in,” McKelvie said, adding, “I’ve gotten lucky getting some good guitar players who are fast learners and have done a great job picking them up really quick. The shows we’ve played, I’ve felt pretty good about, and it does feel nice to be playing some new songs.”

He’s especially pleased with the new material.

“I’ve wanted to do this songwriting forward type of record for a while,” he said. “I’ve done a lot of scrappy home recorded solo things over the years, but this is like a proper studio version of that…. I just think it’s a pretty good record.”

Fans can expect to see a lot more of Jake McKelvie & Friends, or whatever name he finally comes up with.

“I’m trying to play as much as possible this year, so there’s a good chance I’ll be skipping around New England and other parts of the country as much as I can,” he said. “I’m just looking forward to playing a bunch of shows this year.”

He’s performed at Union Coffee many times in the past and looks forward to returning.

“I love playing there,” he said. “We’re playing with this band Trash Sun who I did a show with a few months ago. They’re kind of a newer New Hampshire band, I think, nice guys. Union Coffee is a great spot. They have always treated us really well, and I’m looking forward to getting back.”

Jake McKelvie
When: Saturday, March 30, 7 p.m.
Where: Union Coffee Co., 42 South St., Milford

Featured photo: Jake McKelvie. Courtesy photo.

The Music Roundup 24/03/28

Local music news & events

Island groove: AER singer-songwriter and producer Carter Reeves created Surfer Girl while hunkered down in Maine during the early days of the pandemic, summoning his inner Brian Wilson; yes, the name was inspired by the Beach Boys song. Their new CD Noon features Carmody, Jared Watson of Dirty Heads and Tessellated. They play a free 21+ local show with Sitting On Stacy and Ryan Wright. Thursday, March 28, 7 p.m., The Goat, 50 Old Granite St., Manchester. See

Lake laughter: Monthly standup comedy in an idyllic setting continues as Amy Tee and Mark Scalia bring the funny. Tee’s act is honest and revealing and hilarious. Friday, March 29, 7 p.m., Newfound Lake Inn, 1030 Mayhew Turnpike, Bridgewater, $25 and up at

It’s covered: An area favorite for over two decades, Souled Out Show Band now has visuals in their high-energy show, which draws from the best of classic rock and soul. Sets include hits from Chicago, Journey, Tina Turner, Doobie Brothers and newer acts like Bruno Mars. For an upcoming Manchester show, fans can submit their seat number for a drawing to win dinner at Hanover Street Chophouse. Saturday, March 30, 7:30 pm., Rex Theatre, 23 Amherst St., Manchester, $29 at

Electronic day: Get some hands-on time with a Moog and other gear at Synthfest, along with short performances from event host Bosey Joe and Delusive Relics. The afternoon meet-up offers a chance to connect with other synth-curious and other electronic music minded folks, chat with some musicians, and attend a master class-style introduction to analog synthesis. Saturday, March 30, 1 p.m., Concord Rec Department, 14 Canterbury Road, Concord, donations requested; see

Nineties redux: After leaving Queensrÿche, the band he fronted for years, Geoff Tate went on the road celebrating their big albums Empire, Rage For Order and Operation: Mindcrime. However, he hasn’t made a solo disc in seven years. Tate did recently tell an interviewer he has about 40 new songs, though a new record may be a while, because, he said, “it’s so much work.” Monday, April 1, 8 p.m., Angel City Music Hall, 179 Elm St., Manchester, $30 and up at

Never Been Better by Leanne Toshiko Simpson

Never Been Better by Leanne Toshiko Simpson (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 288 pages)

If you don’t know what it’s like to struggle with mental illness, Never Been Better offers a fresh perspective with a fun plot and a good amount of humor — which, fair warning, veers toward the dark side at times. If you have experienced mental illness, or been close to someone who has, you’ll likely relate to many of the messages in this book.

The protagonist is Dee Foster, a woman with bipolar disorder who hesitantly agrees to travel to Turks and Caicos to attend the wedding of her best friends, Matt and Misa, then decides that as long as she’s there she might as well let Matt know she’s in love with him — and has been since the three of them met in a psychiatric ward.

I think it’s important to note that, although this is fiction, author Leanne Toshiko Simpson has bipolar disorder, so her characters are drawn in part from her own experiences — which, for me, was important to know, because some of the dark humor might have felt disingenuous, almost flippant, if it had been written by someone who hadn’t lived these thoughts and feelings. And using humor to cope is certainly not uncommon. (“I’m glad depression gives me the sex drive of a ham sandwich,” Dee replies when Tilley points out an attractive man and comments that she’s glad she wore her push-up bra.)

I should mention that I’m a (relatively new) therapist, so I read Never Been Better from that perspective, as well as the perspective of someone who has dealt with depression and anxiety. I respect that Toshiko Simpson doesn’t shy away from the very real challenges that mood disorders can present, even as life goes on and people plan weddings and love triangles ensue. The story somehow feels both deeply heavy and blissfully light.

Dee’s sister Tilley plays a solid part in that lightness; she’s wild, bold and fiercely dedicated to protecting Dee. She also embodies the challenges of loving someone with a mood disorder, navigating the slippery slope between emotional accommodations and tough love. In one scene, Dee is struggling hard to get up for an early-morning barre class at the resort they’re staying at, thanks in no small part to the side effects of her medications. But this is nothing new to her, or to Tilley.

“‘After this many years of living in the same house, I should have earned a damn black belt in helping you wake up,’ said Tilley. ‘Just today I’ve pulled all the sheets off your body, turned all the lights on, licked the side of your face…’ More footsteps, then Tilley dumped a full glass of water over my head.”

As Dee struggles openly and honestly, she feels some resentment toward Misa, whose wealthy family doesn’t know she met Dee and Matt in the psychiatric ward, because she never told them she was there as a patient and continues to conceal her mental illness from them, presumably because it doesn’t “fit” into their tidy, proper world.

“Misa went on to run an entire golf tournament dedicated to bipolar disorder without happening to mention her [own bipolar disorder]. … What I really wanted was for her to … be messy in her illness, like I was in mine.”

Good days for Dee are the ones where she doesn’t crave a depression nap, she can get across town on a bus without having a panic attack, or she can make it through a first date without the guy asking, before she’s about to spend the night, whether she’ll be the same person when she wakes up in the morning. So getting through this destination wedding is all kinds of hard, as she navigates her feelings about Matt (while also trying to figure out how to confront him after she finds out he’s stopped taking his meds) and her feelings about Misa, who she felt so close with when they were in the hospital but feels so distant from now.

Along with those considerable issues, Dee is fighting to keep up with the daily pre-wedding activities among Misa and Matt’s friends and family — a whole other fun cast of characters that bring levity to this book, from a kindhearted grandma to a spunky but wise cousin.

This is the debut novel for Toshiko Simpson, who, awesomely, also co-founded a reflective writing program at Canada’s largest mental health hospital. Though at times Never Been Better edges a little too close to the line between mirth and despair, in Toshiko Simpson’s understanding hands it comes together as a heartfelt story of persevering time and time again in the face of mental illness. A-

Album Reviews 24/03/28

Warlord, Free Spirit Soar (High Roller Records)

Ha ha, I owned a Warlord album once when I was a young heavy metal incel, but I only listened to it maybe three times because it wasn’t all that good, sort of like a cross between Anvil and, I don’t know, maybe Scorpions I guess. Singer Bill Tsamis died in 2021, but original drummer and co-founder Mark Zonder is here.

The promo sheet on this one claims that this U.S. band was an early epic-metal band. Funny it should say that, because album-opener “Behold a Pale Horse” is definitely epic-metal. It has caveman-ren-faire drums a la Corvus Corax, and the singer is really serious, singing about witch-kings and prophets or something. Yeah, no, this stuff has a Savatage bend to it. “Conquerors” is street-metal in the vein of Riot, except the dude’s singing about giant cyclops or something. A

Marc Valentine, Basement Sparks (Wicked Cool Records)

This guy, whom Vive Le Rock magazine anointed as “the new king of British power-pop,” qualifies for that “prize” I suppose, for what it’s worth. This is the follow-up full-length to his debut album from last year, and he comes storming out of the gate on this one, with the They Might Be Giants-like “Complicated Sometimes,” which breaks the emo mold a bit by using a Mister Roboto effect on his voice (you never hear that anymore, not that anyone cares). The overall vibe tenders a cross between Dashboard Confessional and a slightly cartoonish version of eastern European grog-punk bands like Korpiklaani, which means the listener is in for a fun ride (I never understood how people could take “power pop” bands seriously, so it’s refreshing to note that this guy takes a lot of his cues from 1970s glam bands). Speaking of Marc Bolan, the tune “Tyrranical Wrecks” is a ton of fun, with Valentine trying on-the-phone patch on for size. I hope this guy breaks big. A+


• Uh-oh, Friday, March 29, is a big day, because it is the last CD release day of our Antarctican winter, meaning that spring is definitely here! Sheryl Crow’s new album, Evolution, is the first one we will laugh look at today; you all remember Crow from her multi-platinum-whatever soccer mom hits, but did you know that she contributed her singing talents to William Shatner’s 2011 joke album, Seeking Major Tom, covering the song “Seeking Major Tom” originally rendered on the K.I.A. album Adieu Shinjuku Zulu, did you even know that? Of course not, who would, but this new one is her 12th album and features the single “Digging in the Dirt,” featuring Peter Gabriel, whom we discussed in this award-winning column just a few weeks ago. He originally released the song (which won the Best Video Grammy) in his 1992 studio album Us. How will Sheryl Crow improve on this song? Will she even try to? Let me go to the YouTube and listen to it, so you don’t have to. OK, it’s basically the same thing except with Sheryl Crow singing all the lines, like, “This time you’ve gone too far” and all that stuff, and every once in a while Gabriel pops in like Punxsutawney Phil the groundhog in order to ensure that it’s as boring as the original. This is a very clever marketing strategy, I have to admit.

• Slovenly chamber-pop singer and Libertines hanger-on Ed Harcourt is back with a new album, called El Magnifico, please stay calm, there will be enough MP3s of this album for all of you to pirate at your favorite pirating website, and no, I have no idea where to find those, because I am an upstanding citizen; now, quiet, you guys, while I try to enjoy the new single, “Deathless,” from this new album. It opens with an indie-folk fractal with some dubstep drums underneath it for some reason, and then it turns into a not-really-bad tune that sounds like Imagine Dragons covering a Conor Oberst B-side. Things could be a lot worse, I suppose, even if the video is really boring, something about standing in a dangerous-looking field of cacti, not that there are any cacti in England, which is where Harcourt is from. And let’s keep moving.

• Brooklyn, N.Y.-based artist Kelly Moran’s music, according to Wikipedia, is a mixture of electronic, jazz, dream pop and black metal, and her record company is Warper Records, which tells me I’m not going to enjoy listening to her new album Moves In The Field at all, not that I’m going into this with a negative attitude or anything of the sort, and besides, she used to play bass for the no-wave punk band Cellular Chaos, so let’s give this LP the benefit of the doubt going in, that’d be great. OK, so the video for the single “Butterfly Phase” features a figure skater interpreting this excitable but sad piano-driven melody, and then it gets sadder and sadder, and all the YouTube commentators are saying they’re crying, and then I started crying myself because I couldn’t understand why a bunch of people were getting emotional over the song, which just sounds like a bummer-piano thing. Maybe they were crying because the figure skater wasn’t doing triple-salchows or pratfalling onto the ice, the latter of which is the only reason people watch figure skating in the first place. I mean, I’m openly sobbing right now.

• Lastly it’s alt-rock band Chastity Belt, from Walla Walla, Washington, and yes, that’s a real place. Live Laugh Love is the all-girl band’s new album, and the single is part folk-indie and part psychedelica. It is gentle and catchy enough; the main verse part is boring, the bridge is OK.

Pomegranate Daisy

Spring is finally here. It’s not like it’s been a long, cold and lonely winter — more of a muddy, slushy, test of emotional endurance — but the idea of mild, pre-mosquito weather is a deeply appealing one.

The time has come for porch-sitting.

Maybe not for a long stretch of time — it still gets chilly after dark — but it’s definitely the start of Porch Season. Which, of course, calls for cocktails. It’s probably a little premature to break out the tiki mugs yet (that’s what Memorial Day weekend is for: action movies and loud Hawaiian shirts) but definitely something with a hint of the tropics.

Which, sooner or later, means grenadine.

If you’re not a huge fan of tropical drinks, you might not be terribly familiar with grenadine. In theory, it’s a syrup made from pomegranate juice that will lend a juicy flavor to a cocktail, typically one with five or more ingredients. In practice, it’s a bright red syrup that mostly gets added to drink recipes to add sweetness and a tropical roseyness. Think about a tequila sunrise: That beautiful ombre color comes from grenadine and orange juice playing off each other.

Is there a way to make grenadine a more active participant in your porch-sitting cocktail?

As it turns out, there is.

Making your own grenadine

Combine one part sugar and two parts unsweetened pomegranate juice in a small saucepan. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until it comes to a boil. Stir to make sure all the sugar has dissolved, then remove from heat.

That’s it.

This is really good grenadine. If you happen to have a bottle of regular grenadine laying around, do a taste comparison. Taste the commercial stuff. It’s fine — it’s sweet and vaguely fruity, about what you’d expect from grenadine. Now try the homemade stuff. The sheer juiciness of this might rock you back on your heels. It’s sweet, but not cloyingly. It tastes deeply purple, with a little acidity that tickles those glands under your ears that flare up sometimes when you eat sharp cheddar.

Now try the commercial grenadine again. Why have you never noticed that artificial flavor before? This tastes like corn syrup and sodium benzoate.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m as big a fan of artificial ingredients as the next man. If they make something taste better, or keep it from molding, or make it feel better in my mouth, I’m all for it.

And yet.

This homemade grenadine tastes an order of magnitude better than the commercial stuff. It’s also incredibly simple to make. There’s no excuse not to.

Pomegranate Daisy

  • ¾ ounce homemade grenadine (see above)
  • ¾ ounce fresh squeezed lemon juice
  • 1½ ounces dry gin – I decided not to go with a fancy gin this time and used Gordon’s; I think it was a good call

Combine all ingredients over ice in a cocktail shaker.

Strain into a coupé glass.

Ask your digital assistant to play “Everyone Come Outside” by the Pomegranates. Sip contentedly on your front steps, calling out to strangers: “Forgive the intrusion, but you’re having a Very Good Hair Day!” or “Bless you, Child of the Universe!”

The best way to describe this cocktail — an abridged version of a classic Clover Leaf — is “juicy.” The homemade grenadine shines through, and its tartness plays off the lemon juice. A botanical gin, or some other gin that takes itself too seriously, would shoulder the juices aside and demand attention for itself. A modest, workmanlike gin like Gordon’s is a team player. It makes itself known and gives the enterprise a backbone but is happy to give equal billing to the juices.

It’s a good taste to take with you to the porch.

Featured photo: Pomegranate Daisy. Photo by John Fladd.

Not just for brunch

Barley House offers a DIY approach to bloody marys

Nikki Miller likes bloody marys.

“They are full of nostalgia, and absolutely delicious,” said Miller, a veteran bartender at The Barley House Restaurant & Tavern in Concord.

She likes them so much that she has put together a weekly event on Sundays called “Build Your Bloody.”

Patrons can order a bloody mary to exacting specificity: what type of vodka — or tequila for a bloody maria — and how much of it, extra seasonings, and, of course, what garnishes they want.

“Customers like to sit at the bar and watch me make it,” Miller said.

For several years, around the country, many bars have been in a bloody mary arms race to make the brunch-friendly cocktail with more and more extreme, over-the-top garnishes, a challenge Miller doesn’t shy away from.

“People like to order it because it’s fun and they’re super-hungry,” she said. The add-ons range from the classic celery — which complements the celery salt that is traditionally part of the spice mixture that gives a bloody mary its kick— to gherkins, olives, cocktail shrimp (“the big fat ones,” Miller enthuses), pepperoncini, or sometimes “just a big hunk of cheese.” Sometimes she has garnished a bloody mary with bacon-wrapped scallops.

“We have a regular who always orders an appetizer platter next to his, because it’s a snack as well as a drink,” Miller said.

Far and away, however, the most popular garnish is the Barley House’s house-made candied bacon.

“I have some customers who are all about the bacon,” Miller said. “They are really unhappy if they don’t get two slices of it.”

Miller came up with the concept for Build Your Bloody while tending bar on New Year’s Day. It’s usually a quiet day, because any rowdy customers have been up very late the night before, celebrating. Most of the customers had ordered bloody marys, and Miller thought about how much fun it would be to set up a bloody mary bar. The idea has turned out to have legs. Bloody marys are very popular on Sunday mornings, though Miller takes issue with the idea that they are just for brunch.

“We have a stigma in our heads that it’s just a breakfast cocktail,” she said, “and that just isn’t the case.”

Aside from the garnishes, the Barley House makes its bloody marys with vodka and a house-made bloody mary mix that Miller describes as “heavy on the horseradish, with spices and pickle juice.” She recommends Tito’s vodka, which she says has a clean taste that stands up to the spice-heavy bloody mary mix.

“I like to rim the glass with Tajin,” she said, referring to Tajin Clasico, a Mexican chile-lime powder.

As she thinks about new bloody mary garnishes, Millier said, she’d like to experiment with house-pickled fresh vegetables.

“We’ve talked about putting mini-sliders on skewers,” she said.

Bloody mary how you like it
The Barley House Restaurant & Tavern
132 N. Main St. in Concord,, 228-6363
Build Your Bloody runs from 11:30 a.m to 3 p.m. on Sundays.

Featured Photo: Photo courtesy of The Barley House.

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