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The Department of Tangents Podcast

Years ago, playing a sort of improv game with friends in which we all picked super powers based on our personalities, I dubbed myself “Tangent Lad.” I was not a very strong superhero, and I could not defeat a super villain on my own, but I could distract them with Monty Python quotes and football trivia. I have many times since apologized to an interview subject in my capacity as a journalist by saying, “I am either very good or very bad at tangents, depending on how you feel about tangents.”

I had a rough time coming up with the concept and naming this blog/podcast. I knew I wanted to create a place where I could address things I’m passionate about – comedy, music, and horror. Finding a name that communicated all three of those things proved a bit impossible. I bugged my friends, and they all tried to help. To no avail. Then I thought, maybe I’m approaching this from the wrong angle. Maybe my lack of focus should be the focus.

As a journalist, I have written for The Boston Globe since 2000, starting out writing CD reviews and then writing a regular column on comedy for seven and a half years. I still contribute there, and to Kirkus Reviews, and other publications. I’m also a musician, and released my debut full-length album, Blue Skies and Broken Arrows, in March of 2015. And I’ve been publishing short horror fiction for a couple of years.

I like to climb into things I love and see how they operate. That’s what the Department of Tangents is for. I’ll be writing regular features, essays, and news bits about the big three – comedy, music, and horror – and offering clips from people I’ve taped interviews with over the past nearly twenty years of writing. Some of the best parts of the interviews I’ve done have been completely off-point and inappropriate for print. I’ll get to explore more of that here. I’m also hoping to convince some friends to tell me about the things they love that I might not even know about, and pass that along to you.

The DoT podcast might be short or long, depending on where the conversation leads. You cant purposefully create an interesting tangent in conversation – it has to happen naturally. But I can confidently forecast that there will be moments in the individual podcasts where things veer off wonderfully.

The main thing here is love. To write about the things that make I’ve loved forever, and some new things that might stand the test and be around, at least for me, for decades to come. I’ve had to be critical in my writing at times, and it might not all be nonstop roses here, but in the end, what I really want to talk about is the good stuff. That’s why I will regularly write about things I think are “Perfect,” even if someone can demonstrate empirically that they are flawed. Still perfect to me.

Also, fish.

I hope you, dear anonymous surfer person, will come to expect only the highest-quality, free-range, grass-fed tangents. And I hope some of you love the same things I do and find it useful. Or at least a welcome distraction until the others get here.

May 4, 2017

The first thing you should know about Amy Helm is that she's a fantastic singer/songwriter. In 2015, she released her first solo album, Didn't It Rain, after having been a member of Ollabelle and the Levon Helm Band. I caught up with her when she brought Amy Helm & The Handsome Strangers to the Lizard Lounge in Cambridge on her Woodshed Residency Tour, which had her playing weekly at the Lizard, and in New York and Philadelphia, throughout March.

It was a soulful and rocking performance. She played stuff from the first album, some new things she's working on, and a couple of familiar tunes from her days in her father's band.

Which is another thing you should know about her. Her musical apprenticeship was served with her father, who just happened to be one of the masters, Levon Helm of The Band. She grew up wanting to be Carole King, and told me she once arranged "War Pigs" by Black Sabbath for mandolin. She played in some bar bands in her teens before she was drafted into service singing and playing mandolin and drums with Levon's band.

She's an intuitive and emotive singer, whether she's belting out a rock tune, finessing old school R&B or old-timey folk or bluegrass. "I've always been a singer," she says. "That comes first to me, and it's come naturally."

Songwriting came later. Helm is currently at work on her second album, writing and recording up in Woodstock. The idea of songwriting is a bit mysterious to her. "It definitely has it's own magic to it," she says, "and it's own gift, I think, that lives apart from the song."

We talked about her experiences with Levon's band, finding her voice, and the sound for the new album, which she says will be a little less polished, recording the whole thing over five days playing live.

After the interview, stick around for a track from Bill Hicks: Live In Montreal, which was released in April. The track is "Hee Haw The Book," and it's taken from a performance at Montreal's Just For Laughs Festival in 1991, one that helped him find a larger audience, especially in England.

If you enjoyed the podcast, you can subscribe and review on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, and wherever you find quality podcasts. Listen, enjoy, share!