Have a Merrie

Figures. Here I am trying to concentrate on my notebook, waiting for a late breakfast, after reaching Merrie Amsterburg on the phone in Boston, and a trio in the next booth keep stealing my attention with witty takes on the Heaven's Gate cult story in today's paper... A travel agency booking comet tours...Thanks so much...

It's a chore to temper an unbounded enthusiasm for Amsterburg's CD, Season of Rain; to penetrate the secrets of its unusual and intimate effectiveness against this speculative chatter but that's what I've got to do if I'm going to hip you to her appearance at the Tinker Street Cafe on April 8th with her guitarist hubby, Peter Linton.

I'm thinking maybe this story will finally replace OJ's spot in social banter and a wise guy in the next booth is marveling that there were no Woodstockers in the group. I'm about to take offense at this lens on our community when I realize my first take on the story was in similar generalizations about California. I look at my notes.

Merrie is from a small town in the "little finger" area of Michigan and migrated to the Boston scene in 1986 to play her original music. She anchored a poprock group called The Natives from '88 to '94 and started soloing in New England's Acoustic Underground competition and playing duets with Linton on a different level club circuit. She lists Nick Drake and Paul Brady among her influences. I'm not alone in my appreciation of the album; both the Boston Herald and the Boston Phoenix picked it among their top ten CDS of 1996.

Someone wants to know why they all had short hair and Nikes when "comet" means "longhair."

Amsterburg's songs have theme-suggestive connections, as subtle and teasing as her style, in a spell-casting progression of pastel sketches. Love and death. Set with a deep tonality and confiding voice, her approach is like that of a feminized J.J. Cale with shadings of Lou Reed, Mae West and your favorite unknown female vocalist whose name you never caught from the DJ. There's an idiosyncratic tendency of perspective with obsessive undertones. There's philosophy in tragedy.

The trio is into the website angle and I'm thinking of a young friend from the coast, yes- California, who wrote to me late last year about the huge unknown object trailing Hale-Bopp that he had heard about on Art Bell's radio show and seen pictures of on Internet. Did I have any information? Was there a government cover-up? He was still interested when he came to Woodstock for the Christmas holiday. My eggs arrive.

Amsterburg satisfied my curiosity by telling me that yes, her songs were all autobiographical "in some sense; something you keep a little distance from or taken from other people's situations. But I think that there's an element of myself in all my songs. I think that if it wasn't there then people would know," she said. Then she laughed. I didn't press. More coffee, please.

The album is a mysterium of slowly stirred emotions. It eases in with "Island," for which she supplies her own bass and guitar and the wistful, laid back beat of "Great Divide," which swells with Linton's ringing support to gather you in at the crest. "Lay of the Land" is a song of weary disenchantment made magical by subdivision. Merrie adds a rhythm mandolin for "World of Our Own Making," piano, Indian banjo, bouzouki, harmonium and other instruments as lightly etched accents, even throws in delicate trumpet strands on one tune. Studio help from musicians like Greg Porter, Jerome Deupree, Mike Denneen and others assure that the Boston music scene is still healthy.

Cutting to the quick, you'd have to mention the sense of loss in songs like "Season of Rain." In "This Will Never Be My Year" a lulling verse proclaims "I'll quit this job and go to greenland/ up where the lights like angels glow/ drink myself into dreaming/ and slowly fall asleep in the snow." Suicidal? Sure. And other tunes here hint at the kaleidoscope of feelings one might experience when someone close takes their own life. I didn't press. Bluesy, sometimes, but with the addition of the survivor's attitude, never a strict downer. "Say Goodbye" is openly about an apparent suicide without being mournful. There are more traces of anger and the guilt-tinged resentment of the abandoned. It's a fascinating balance.

The trio were paying their check as I signaled for mine with notebook closed. I'm silently apologizing to those few rational Californians that are undoubtedly out there. Scraping honor for even the fringe Woodstock New Agers. Even the UFO community, most of whom are thoughtful, curious and mystified but nonfanatical individuals, look with wonder at the 39 voyagers to Hale-Bopp. UFOers aren't statistically any buggier than any other group, I'm thinking. Most belief systems are weird from off angles. There's as many balmy Baptists and looney Lutherans as unbalanced UFOers. Hell, even the New York Times Cult has the hubris to joke about the "silly rantings of Pierre Salinger."

This former Presbyterian minister in Rancho Santa Fe was waiting for an omen to lead his flock to their promised land and found it in a computer website. If you were living on schedule feeding and controlled diet, forbidden any books beyond the Bible or even the slightest recognition of gender, wouldn't you go along for the ride? Statistically, it's the celibacy that's dangerous. Besides, Heavens Gate was misinformed. There are no aliens trailing Hale-Bopp to pick up the true believers. They're on the next comet.

-Irv Yarg