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What's old is new
Mission of Burma finish their new album, Union Blues opens in Worcester, and more

Burma’s chillout

The big news for local post-punk fans last week was the gig that isn’t. When the Pixies released an itinerary of the 11-date warm-up tour that will take them to California’s Coachella festival May 1 — a tour that marks their first appearances since disbanding 11 years ago — Boston was conspicuous by its absence. But if Pixies fever is now revving into overdrive, it’s unlikely that you’ll find Boston’s other legendary-post-punk-reunion-of-the-moment complaining. On Tuesday, a few hours after Frank Black and company announced their tour, Mission of Burma gave about 30 or so friends and members of the press a first listen to the band’s forthcoming ON off ON (Matador, due May 4) — their first studio album in 22 years, and only their second overall — and it was a decidedly low-key affair. Held in the chill-out lounge at Q Division studios, where the band recorded the disc with adopted engineer Bob Weston and long-time champion Rick Harte, it featured a simple pizza-and-beer spread; the only decoration was a Scrabble board on a coffee table that one attendee, reaching for a connection, suggested might be a reference to the infamous alphabetized lyric sheet from Burma’s Signals, Calls, and Marches EP. Certainly nothing like the last listening party to be held at Q Division — as studio manager Dave Sakowski recalled it, a fête thrown by the record company of the late George Harrison for which Oriental rugs and mushroom-shaped chairs were shipped in to dress up the room.

As the disc blasted on repeat, bassist Clint Conley admitted it was only with great effort that he was able to resist hiding in the corner of the room. Drummer Peter Prescott was AWOL. But frontman Roger Miller, sans shooting-range headphones, was all smiles. Which was as it should be: on first and second listen, it was tempting to call this Burma’s finest recording yet. Most of the songs — including such standouts as Miller’s "Wounded World," Conley’s "What We Really Were," and Prescott’s vicious "Fake Blood" — will be familiar to those who’ve been following the group’s "Inexplicable" reunion shows in town. And though there didn’t appear to be anything as Moby-able as "That’s When I Reach for My Revolver," perhaps the biggest surprise is that the production emphasizes the songs’ hooks and the trio’s rockist intensity over their vaunted artsiness. Well, that and a song that could damn near pass for a country tune — Conley’s "Nicotine Bomb."

Although there are no firm plans for a tour, Burma are headed to South by Southwest in Austin next month and will likely play a Boston date around the release of the album in May. Here’s the track listing for ON off ON: 1) "The Setup"; 2) "Hunt Again"; 3) "The Enthusiast"; 4) "Falling"; 5) "What We Really Were"; 6) "Max Ernst’s Dream"; 7) "Fake Blood"; 8) "Prepared"; 9) "Wounded World"; 10) "Dirt"; 11) "Into the Fire"; 12) "Fever Moon"; 13) "Nicotine Bomb"; 14) "Playland"; 15) "Absent Mind."

— Carly Carioli

Union Blues

WORCESTER — Blues and railroads have been connected since the music’s early days, when Robert Johnson compared his broken soul to a train’s tail lights in "Love in Vain" and W.C. Handy was inspired to set the genre to notation for the first time by an itinerant guitarist playing knife-blade slide at the station in Tutwiler, Mississippi. Fast-forward nearly eight decades to Worcester, where a new club called Union Blues opened this past Saturday. As Chicago blues singer-guitarist Luther "Guitar Junior" Johnson held the upscale room’s elegant dark wood stage for the inaugural Valentine’s Day performance, patrons got a trackside view of passing freight and passenger trains through the glass walls of the city’s beautifully restored Union Station, where the venue occupies part of the second floor.

The club is owned and run by Lee J. Beaudoin, a Millbury resident and former chief administrative officer for Fallon Community Health Plan. Beaudoin, with help from the city of Worcester, has invested some $400,000 in Union Blues, which will be open Tuesdays through Sundays offering blues and jazz, a full bar, and a menu of sandwiches and finger foods at lunch. New York City guitarist Popa Chubby will appear on February 20 and 21; Roomful of Blues on February 24 and April 16 and 17; guitarist Debbie Davies on February 27 and March 5; saxist Greg Abate on February 28; Texas songwriter Randy McAllister on March 11, 12 and 13; West Coast blues outfit Little Charlie & the Nightcats on March 25; and gospel-blues-soul group the Holmes Brothers on March 27. (Check www.unionblues.org for further bookings.)

"This is something I’ve been thinking about for 10 or 12 years," Beaudoin explained at a low-key press conference at Union Blues on February 3 as workmen put final touches on the space and a long freight train shuttled cars onto a siding. "I want to present the best blues and jazz around in a setting that’s nice for the audience and performer friendly." To those ends, the club offers table seating and unobstructed views of the centrally located stage and a suspended $30,000 sound system designed for the room by engineers from the Framingham-based Bose Corporation. Beaudoin, who is also a former sax player, says he is using Boston’s Scullers as a model for his venue, which will be Worcester’s only upscale music club and is arriving just as the city’s Club Zara has stopped booking blues.

Performances will typically start at 8 p.m. and end in time for Bostonians to catch the final Purple Line train home. (The MBTA Web site lists that departure time at 11:40 p.m.) Beaudoin explains, "The audience for this music is adults with kids and jobs who can’t be out until 2 in the morning." Valet parking will be available, and there’s a public garage with 500 spaces two blocks away. Union Station reopened in 1999 after the city of Worcester, at a cost of $32 million, restored the two-towered structure to the polished marble-and-granite splendor of its original 1911 dedication. Built by the Boston & Albany Railroad, it’s New England’s second-largest passenger depot, after South Station, and it’s considered a jewel of American railroading’s golden age.

— Ted Drozdowski

Roxbury’s riches

If the local underground, unconventional, and alternative arts scene used to blaze, these days it’s flickering. Every month seems to mark the shuttering of, or a serious threat to, another alternative art space: Zeitgeist Gallery in Inman Square, the Berwick Institute in Roxbury, Mobius Artists Group in Fort Point, and the Oni Gallery in Chinatown are among groups that have recently been displaced or faced with extinction (see "Space Invaders," in the News & Features section of last week’s Phoenix). But in Roxbury, there’s one new space that’s about to start smoldering.

Hibernian Hall, currently a boarded-up rattletrap brick building at 184 Dudley Street in Dudley Square, is being renovated by the Madison Park Development Corporation (MPDC) — a community-based, resident-led, non-profit organization whose Web site describes it as providing "the framework for holistic community revitalisation and redevelopment in Roxbury" — and transformed into the Roxbury Center for Arts, Culture & Trade. "The center will be both a neighborhood spot and a resource," says Candelaria Silva, the Director of ACT Roxbury, the cultural and economic development program of MPDC, which uses arts and culture to strengthen Dudley Square. "We will have taken another eyesore of a building and turned it into a place where there will be activity going on that’s appropriate for the neighborhood, complete with a landscaped park and public art."

Renovations will include a ground floor for storefronts, a restaurant, and ACT Roxbury’s offices (ACT aims to move in next January). The second floor and the front bays of the third and fourth floors will be offices and artist studio space. And the 350-seat, two-story hall will host community gatherings, dance and theater performances, and film screenings. "The facilities are aimed toward mid-sized groups like the ones forced out of Fort Point and the South End," Silva says, "and toward groups who’ve never had a space. The capital campaign was done to make it a more affordable arts space."

Silva adds that the location of the building — close to the Orange and Silver Lines and the Dudley bus station and right off the Roxbury Expressway — makes it an ideal space. But she acknowledges that "some groups may have a reluctance" about being based in Roxbury because of "a perception that their audiences might not feel comfortable in this area. There’s a lingering perception that it’s a horrible area, and that’s just a mistake." On the other hand, she’s noticed that "people are much more willing to come here than they were five years ago." In a course that ACT offers on property buying for artists, recent students have been from Brookline and Somerville as well as Roxbury and JP — testament, Silva suggests, to Roxbury’s growing appeal. "Everything ACT does is to say that Roxbury is rich. It’s a message to both people who live here and people who don’t."

The MPDC and ACT Roxbury are kicking off their capital campaign to raise $1 million with an event to benefit the restoration today, February 19, at 11 a.m. at the Biarritz Lounge, 175 Dudley Street in Roxbury. They’re halfway to their goal; for more information, visit www.actroxbury.org.

— Nina MacLaughlin

Issue Date: February 20 - 26, 2004
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