Koffee With Kommie’s own Matt Robert is also on this bill. I’ll be playing two John Sebastian tunes, plus one each by Country Joe and Arlo Guthrie. Peace!
Lovers will get a chance to check out two new things around town this weekend with a special Valentine’s Day show by Dan Burke and the Royal Treatment at Electric Haze, on Millbury Street, on Friday, February 14th.
Dan Burke should need no introduction, as he has been crooning and laying keyboards for years in local clubs with a bevy of acts, from Gamble & Burke and Niki Luparelli and the Gold Diggers to The Orange Ocean, as well as being a regular feature at Nick’s, where he performs solo, guests at shows, such as the Duke Ellington tribute last year, and now appears with his latest outfit, The Royal Treatment.
“My favorite stuff is really chilled out RnB music,” says Burke. “I love singer-songwriter stuff, too.” All this, he says, comes out in The Royal Treatment, but the “main pocket right now is RnB and pop,” both original and covers.
In a world gone roots and vintage, where old is new, what is old is good, and even mainstream acts wield mandolins, banjos, and dusty fedoras, The Royal Treatment is a breed apart.
Burke and company – Jeff Killebrew (drums, backing vocals), Eli Mateo (percussion), Sean Rosati (guitar), and Imer Diaz (bass) – like things just the way they are today.
“We’re not going to be like Amy Winehouse,” Burke says, “trying to record on analog tape or anything like that.”
He says that the band is pretty comfortable with the modern version of RnB, stuff like John Legend, Justin Timberlake, Robin Thicke, and, of course, Michael Jackson.
So, while he says band members share a common love of Motown, Marvin Gaye, and Smokey Robinson, he adds, “If I had to put us on one side of the spectrum, I would put us on the modern side.”
So, understandably, the band is bright and poppy. Diaz, formerly of local progressive rock act Miars, is a virtuoso, who lays thick but bright six-string bass. (“Imer is an absolutely sick bass player and a super humble sweet guy,” says Burke.) Killebrew, who cut his teeth on the church circuit, playing gospel organ, offers up straight-up RnB grooves that, when combined with Diaz’s smooth bass lines and Rosati’s chorused up skanking rhythm or chunky, fluid jazz lines and Mateo’s latin percussion, should offer plenty to get all but the most sedentary attendees onto the dance floor.
And that’s just what the band wants. The Valentine’s show hopes to get couples moving, and a repertoire of accessible pop tunes (Justin Timberlake’s “Until the End of Time,” Cody Chestnutt’s “Till I Met Thee,” and Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana”) as well as some old school material (“disco-y anthems and James Brown,” says Burke), and Electric Haze’s high quality in-house p.a. system, should have the place thumping.
“It’s going to be a dance party,” says Burke.
Add to this a guest appearance by band friend Limaaj, whose presence as a front man adds significant sexuality to the band’s performance, in a manner Burke likens to Andre 3000 and Prince, and you’ve got a formula for driving the chicks wild. Not only can he sing in the upper register style popular in RnB, but he is utterly comfortable before a crowd and engaging the audience.
The Royal Treatment will have recording gear on hand to run the live set direct to Pro Tools for later mixing, and, hopefully, a live release. “I’m psyched about that!” says Burke.
The band has high hopes for this project, about which Burke says it is “the best band [he’s] ever been in.”
“They’re Amazing players!” he says.
Beyond local gigging and recording, the band hopes to get involved in general business, and looks to get hired for functions. Further, returning to the variety show format that gave rise to the band in the first place (they met as session players for the B. Heard showcases held throughout Worcester a few years back), they intend to offer themselves as a band for hire for singers or players needing a backing group for gigs or recordings.
So, treat your special someone (or go stag!) to a night of fresh music in one of Worcester’s latest clubs, and look for the band in coming months for return engagements at Electric Haze, or any one of the band members’ solo shows at local clubs.
To learn more, visit http://www.facebook.com/DanBurkeAndTheRoyalTreatment.
by Matt Robert
The January 2014 release of The Curtis Mayflower’s debut CD, “Everything Beautiful Is Under Attack,” will set a high mark early in the year for best CD, one which will undoubtedly raise the stakes by which area bands play.
The Curtis Mayflower is the combined result of decades of individual work and commitment and an unlikely scene in an unlikely place that provided the centripetal force that eventually brought these five select players together.
Their debut CD, too, is an organic outcropping of this little scene in this little place – Duncan Arsenault’s six-year run of Thursday nights at Green Street’s Dive Bar – where Worcester’s faithful came out in increasing numbers to experience free, varied and exciting music without too much hype.
Fittingly (perhaps coincidentally) in the same spirit that produced The Band’s landmark “Music from Big Pink,” the record was recorded in an out-of-the-way Maine farmhouse in a simple fashion, quickly and without pomp and circumstance.
Great things seem to come of this method.
The band, Pete Aleksi (guitar), Arsenault (drums), Jeremy Curtis (bass), Brooks Milgate (keys), and Craig Rawding (vocals, harmonica), has a resume of individual accomplishments that can’t be topped, including work with The Delta Generators, The Curtain Society, Bow Thayer and Perfect Trainwreck, Booker T. Jones, Levon Helm, Big Eyed Rabbit, Hey Now, Morris Fader and Beg, Scream & Shout, among others. In some cases, this could be a problem.
Curtis calls the formation of The Curtis Mayflower “serendipitous” and says that the five musicians are “all on the same page” and “willing to turn each other on to different stuff.”
In other words, they have chemistry and shared vision. It comes through in spades on the record, where each player tips his hand to personal tastes, but the overall sound lies tantalizingly beyond categorization. Don’t get me wrong. This is, at heart, a blues and soul record, territory more than familiar to each member of the band. (Any soul band would proudly claim songs like “NYCD” and “Last Kiss.”) But the conventions of blues and soul have become mere elements of a larger influence, not genre-specific, but of an approach to music, which, like Big Pink, makes use of influence in the service of something new. So, while the ear continually hears familiar tonalities (Aleksi says it’s all “reminiscent of other music”), the end result is a fresh addition to the rock idiom.
“Clockwork Hearts,” which opens the disc, is melancholy with a menacing lock-step guitar lick that will get your head rocking. The dynamic control is phenomenal and the attention to subtleties exciting. The band can make a lot out of an idea that might simply be beaten to death by a lesser band. Everything you need to know about The Curtis Mayflower is revealed here. These cats have soul, and, man! Can they play!
“Seven Children” is a brooding, tribal mood that might be at home on a Pink Floyd record, but soon gives way to a blues lament: “Meet me where the moon’s on fire and the earth is still. I have seven children in the ground.” The band is confident and dynamic, with no hesitation. The guitar solo is pure Robert Cray blues, crisp and melodic.
The exceptions to this general sound are track two, “Ben the Destroyer,” a wild, light-hearted romp of raging rock pandemonium and a tribute to the hyperbolic abilities of Ben, and the aforementioned “NYCD” and “Last Kiss,” both a bit lighter and more genre-specific. “Everybody definitely brings their own influences,” says Aleksi, “but there’s something different happening as a group.”
A love of ‘70s bleeds through, the album pushing everything in a heavy direction. Guitar riffs are biting and tough, keys are chunky and distorted, the rhythms spare but solid – and deep. A riff hearkens to Traffic, Blind Faith or King Crimson, Stevie Ray Vaughan or Robert Cray, yet it is couched in a context that feels new and fresh.
The players, as it is well known locally, are all masters of their craft. Each is in just the right place at the right time on the record, perfectly complementing the rest with a tasty lick and killer tone. Craig Rawding is a rock monster, somewhere between the smoky growl of vintage Gregg Allman and the rare rock scream of Robert Plant or Ian Gillian.
The record is a wash of textures, too. The arrangements are spare, perfectly layered and full of air. Ear candy abounds, and the players don’t rule out any mode of play that may be useful. The result is surprising sounds throughout. Each time the listener settles in on the tonality of a song, a surprising sound pops up. And it’s always the right sound. Yet, the record isn’t layered with endless effects and overdubs, the downfall of the unlimited tracks of Pro Tools.
In fact, with the exception of a few overdubs of shakers and backing vocals, the cuts are live. No overdubs or patches were used to sweeten or fix the performances. In the true spirit of the Dive series, this is essentially a live record, an old-school capture of a great band.
Curtis says the band just set up in the farmhouse on a Friday night with engineer David Westner, “went over the game plan, and just went for it,” recording through Friday night and all day and night on Saturday. “The arrangements just happened in the studio.” He says they “just put it all on the table” to see “what they came up with.” Band members left with a rough mix on Sunday and the final mixing occurred later.
And this is the gift of Arsenault’s Thursday night series, a local Fillmore or Minton’s, with lots of time and no pressure. Week after week, Arsenault called on friends to come out and make music. After the untimely death of Scott Ricciuti in April 2012, Arsenault had to look harder. The fortunate outcome of a horrible tragedy was a web of musicians that grew exponentially, drawing players from throughout Southern New England, eventually settling into several discrete bands.
The Curtis Mayflower began this way, too. As Aleksi and Curtis explain, they were merely invited down to the Dive, as friends of friends (Aleksi from Western Mass. as a friend of Milgate, and Curtis from Boston). No one was picked from a classified ad (“Singer seeking proto-metal outfit for steady gigs. No amateurs need apply!”) In fact, there was no immediate game plan, except to jam and see what happened. “It was really like, after several of these Thursday nights, there was a lot of cool experimental stuff happening,” says Aleksi. “We wandered into the sound.”
All the songs came out of spontaneous experiments, including vocals. “Craig plays an instrument with his voice,” says Aleksi, “coming up with lyrics out of nowhere.”
And from chaos, comes order. Band members shared the weekly recordings, culling ideas that showed potential for songs, and adding them to a permanent repertoire.
“Due to the nature of the musicians,” says Curtis, “it’s hard not to recognize a theme and say, ‘someone ought to make a song out of this.’” Still, the band likes to keep it loose and hang out on the edge, where the good stuff happens. At a recent show at Atwood’s Tavern, in Cambridge, Curtis says, the band stepped up to begin the second set, when Aleksi said, “try this,” and the band simply stepped into unknown territory before a live audience. Their recent recording, the soundtrack to the film, “American Mongrel,” too, is extemporized. Curtis and Aleksi both say that the music is “easy.” Curtis adding that “it created itself.”
“Organic is the best way to describe it,” he says. “We recognized that we shared a like for a certain kind of music or jams that were happening with each other.”
Curtis says that no discussions ever took place to steer or define the band. They all felt that would be counterproductive and could only limit their “view and scope of what’s possible.” That, he says, “wasn’t on any of our agendas.”
The band has no intention of letting the record stunt any further growth or to impose any restrictions on further projects, either. “The next record might be all acoustic,” says Curtis. “With accordion and a bass.” And while the band has applied for some 2014 festivals, Curtis says they plan to let things develop – how else – organically.
“We want to let the product do the talking. We want to let people absorb [the record], and see what the reactions are.” He says he’d like to see the band play once or twice a month and, perhaps, do the soundtrack to another movie.
The greatest accomplishment here goes well beyond the notes and the sound. The band has found community in a time when community is hard to find. And they have picked up, from the ashes of the 20th century music industry, opportunities, where others have found dead ends. They are reinventing how music can be made, how bands can exist and thrive, and this is the true gift of this band, well beyond the excellence of the music itself.
The Curtis Mayflower plans to host a CD release party early in 2014 either in Cambridge or Worcester.
by Matt Robert
Originally appeared in the November 21, 2013, issue of Worcester Magazine.
It’s Thanksgiving time again and that means reunions: family, friends and high school alums gather to catch up on old times. It’s also time for three old friends to reunite and make some music.
Tony Wilson, Todd Kosiewski and Bret Talbert, who made a pretty big splash in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s with a band called Public Works, will reunite for the first time in a decade on Thanksgiving Eve, November 27, at Ralph’s Rock Diner, in Worcester.
In the 10 years that the power-pop band operated, they went from high school pals emulating U2 to dominating the Worcester clubs, releasing 4 EPs, charting in England and touring the US in support of a major British act. The friendships have endured, they all seem pretty excited about the event and they still joke with each other like they might have on one of the interminable and inevitable car rides that form part of the band experience.
The event, which will be headlined by The Public Works, will also feature present-day heavyweights Herra Terra, as well as Ghost Ocean and Ritch Kids. Herra Terra, in fact, is a great contemporary complement to Public Works as a similarly edgy, forward thinking act with national potential. In their day, The Public Works brought a polished, aggressive and serious-faced act to the stage, with a visual style to match their aural sense, initially influenced by U2 and Echo and the Bunnymen, and then by important local acts, like Childhood, The Three Believers and The Pale Nephews, who provided opening slots, became colleagues as Worcester headliners and Boston contenders.
A series of well-recorded EPs landed Public Works slots in Boston clubs, like TT the Bear’s and The Middle East, but it was the band’s third EP, 1988’s “American Electro-Pastel Surge,” recorded by Tom Hamilton (not of Aerosmith) at Boston’s legendary Synchro Sound, that signaled a new direction for the band. Transfixed by the lysergic sounds coming out of Manchester, England, as well as Tom Wolfe’s Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and influenced by local compadres The Pale Nephews, the band took the music deeper and infused their songs with more meaning.
Managing to slip the EP into the hands of their heroes, The Wonder Stuff, in the parking lot at The Paradise, the unlikely happened: The wonder Stuff invited the band on tour – eight stops, including New Jersey’s Stone Pony; Washington DC’s 9:30 Club; Atlanta’s Cotton Club; Austin’s Liberty Lunch; and two stops that the band members call the highlight of their time together: Montezuma Hall, at San Diego State University and The Palace, in Los Angeles. On tour, the band enjoyed the challenge of winning over new crowds nightly. The crowd at The Palace – a capacity crowd of about 2,500 – included Brian Setzer, Robbie Grey of Modern English, and (allegedly) Madonna.
The band’s success continued. Upon returning home, they earned an opening slot for rising British act, Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine, at The Paradise, where they had met The Wonder Stuff before, but had only dreamed of performing. Further, CUSM had asked the band to record a cover song for release as a b-side of one of their singles, fully paid for by the British act; and Robbie Grey, impressed with the act, worked with his own label to get The Public Works signed.
The single reached number 11 on the British charts, and the band felt that they were driving strong, but the gas tank was running low. First, their recently hired manager had walked off with money they had spent on merchandise and other band expenses (Bret estimates $1,000-1,500). Then, the record deal efforts by Grey, as well as their own attempts, failed. Music was changing in the early ‘90s, and record label sweeps of Boston sought heavier bands, like Seattle produced. The band felt like they were spinning their wheels.
A last EP, “Boondoggle,” was eventually completed, but didn’t bring the growth that the band had hoped it might. Tony accepted the offer to play drums on a record and on tour with upcoming Boston act, The Drop Nineteens, which ended as quickly as it began.
Fazed and tired, the band called it quits, finishing in the spring of 1994 with a show at Ralph’s, but not before making their mark and achieving a considerable level of success for a few local kids, cemented with their inclusion in respected local music chronicler, Brian Goslow’s, retrospective of late ‘70s to present Worcester rock.
Come on out to Ralph’s and check out a piece of Worcester’s rock heyday and a few of its promising acts of today on Wednesday, Nov. 27, at 9 p.m.
The story of area artist Stephen Knapp’s revolutionary lightpaintings (distinct from photographic light painting), is a tale about risk, exploration and the artist’s long journey.
Knapp is known locally for the eight glass doors at the Worcester Public Library, added during the building’s refurbishing in the early 1990s, and worldwide for some of the world’s largest glass-glazed ceramic murals and for his kaleidoscopic “lightpaintings,” that are not paintings at all, but spectral flourishes of refracted light illuminated remarkably by a single light source.
Knapp’s work includes permanent exhibits in Cincinnati, Ohio and Japan, and a temporary exhibit currently on display at The Alexandria Museum of Art in Alexandria, La., where it will remain through November, before moving to Lakeland, Fla.
Knapp never set out to be a lightpainter. That discovery occurred unwittingly when he picked up a camera in college.
“At Hamilton [College, in Clinton, NY],” Knapp says, “I picked up a camera and said, ‘Oh, wow!’ I never knew that I could do something creative until I picked up a camera for the first time, and it absolutely blew me away.”
Knapp says that his experiences at the liberal arts college were “way way important” in precipitating his discovery.
“I tell most young people I talk to that want to make a living in the arts to get a good liberal arts degree first, because you learn to think differently, if you take advantage of it. And that ability to look at things differently, to come at it from different perspectives, is why I am where I am today.”
“The people that end up leading giant companies, and most endeavors really, tend to be people who can think laterally and who have a good grasp of a lot of different areas.”
He also credits the zeitgeist of the time period.
“I was drinking the Kool Aid of the ‘60s, which said you could do anything you wanted,” he says, “and by the time I realized how difficult it was to lead a creative life I was just too stubborn to stop.”
And the rest, as they say…took decades of tireless exploration and risk-taking.
The initial gambit to pursue art out of college, though, didn’t cause Knapp a moment of doubt.
“That was easy. I worked for a large corporation for a couple years and it taught me that I never wanted to do that again.”
Though Knapp’s early artistic forays were in photography, his first lark was in writing. “I dragged my young bride screaming off to Nova Scotia shortly after we got married to write the great American novel,” he says. “And we were up there for about 10 months and I’ve got three unpublished novels.”
The manuscripts remain in Knapp’s attic today. Despite his failure to hit pay dirt, he sees the jaunt as meaningful, just the same. “It was really just an incredible break from that tradition of going to high school, going to college, getting a job,” he says. “There’s something about those 10 months, [it] was a magical thing to do and in the ‘60s we just kind of expected we’d do things like that. It was the fall of ’71 when I last worked for somebody else.”
When he returned to the States, Knapp started small, selling photographic prints in increasing sizes and prices. Enjoying “working in scale,” he was drawn to larger pieces and eventually to installations, which led to edged metal walls.
“I did what was probably, in 1984, the largest photo-edged metal wall in the country, in Cincinnati, a 14-foot by 72-foot installation,” he says. “And that same year or the next year, I did what was, I think, one of the largest glass glazed-ceramic murals in the world, in Japan.”
These works were risky for the young artist, as he had no training in the medium. In fact, no one did, because the medium didn’t exist. “But I’m endlessly curious,” he says. It is said that curiosity killed the cat, and it must have struck fear in Knapp’s heart, too, as untested media, especially on a large scale, meant working in the unknown, for great periods of time, and limited remuneration. Knapp says that these circumstances played to his advantage, however, as he saw himself as “willing to take out huge chunks of time and invest in myself and invest in learning.”
Though professional commissions carry guarantees that minimize some elements of artistic risk associated with the independent artist, Knapp says that a lot of doubt remains. “You’ve just got to be willing to convince them and yourself that you can do the work, he says. “And often the amount of pay you get early on to do something that big is miniscule compared to the time involved.”
The risks, he says, paid off in other ways. “It was the ability to get some incredibly big things done that gave me the chance to move on and build a name,” he says.
Knapp’s arrival at his lightpaintings came about in the early 1990s, after he had completed work on the Worcester Public Library glass doors. He says that someone who saw his edged-metal and glass-metal walls, said, “‘We’d like you to do this large glass project.’” Knapp was surprised, because he hadn’t really worked in glass – at least not in the way they intended. So, he asked, “‘Why me?’” and they said, “’We like the way you think, the way you solve problems, and how you create things,” hearkening back to his liberal arts training.
“So, I started working in kiln-formed glass,” he says. And in late 1993 Chicago’s worldrenowned Merchandise Mart (the world’s largest commercial building and wholesale design center) asked Knapp to create an exhibit to go along with a talk on architectural art glass. “NeoCon is the biggest show in the world for architectural designers. And I was told that, if you do that, do it properly.”
The Mart offered Knapp a 5,000-square-foot showroom for a “huge exhibit that stayed up for a full year in The Mart.”
“I filled it with glass and steel sculpture and architectural walls, like the Worcester Public Library [doors].”
Initially fearing that he couldn’t fill the exhibit with just his own work, Knapp started looking at different types of materials and found acrylic glass, which, he says, “is the basis of lightpaintings.”
“We ended up doing the whole exhibit with glass and steel sculpture and furniture and art glass walls and really cool different things,” he says, “and I did a tiny dichroic piece in the corner.”
Since then, Knapp has created lightpaintings for nearly 40 private commissions throughout the United States, including The Allmerica Building on Lincoln Street, in Worcester, and has displayed his works in innumerable group and solo exhibits throughout the world.
“People tell me all the time that it takes a lot of guts to go through life doing this for a living. And I tell people that I was always more afraid of not doing it,” he says.
“Somebody told me years ago that I would be very wealthy if I stuck with something and did it over and over again, but I also think I would’ve been brain dead if I had done that.”
But since writing about art is like dancing about architecture (as they say!), drop this and visit http://www.stephenknapp.com to see the artist’s work.
Written by Matt Robert
From the September 12, 2013 issue of Worcester Magazine.
My Facebook news feed inundates me with an infinite stream of event listings, highinterest news bytes, memes and photos of, well, everything from a friend’s breakfast to a sustained injury to, well, everything. After a while, I stop noticing anything.
Two weeks ago, however, my eye stopped on a post by a local musician, Michael Thibodeau, who sought a few volunteers for an upcoming show.
Nothing unusual, right?
Except, in this case, he needed 12 people to perform on AM/ FM radios.
Ah, John Cage is back in town, I thought.
The late John Cage is on a short list of 20th century composers – or inventor, as he referred to himself – that embodies everything many love or hate about modern art. The piece in question, “Imaginary Landscape no. 4 (March no. 2 for Twelve Radios),” is just one of hundreds that challenges our old-fashioned notions of what music can or should be. It is also one of four Cage pieces being staged for a centennial celebration of the artist by the Cage and Cardew Society, a Clark University group headed by Thibodeau and Clark Music professor, Matthew Malsky, on Wednesday, September 18 at Nick’s Bar and Restaurant.
The Cage and Cardew Society came together about a decade ago, when Thibodeau and Malsky, his advisor, staged the first “Living Room Concert” (named for the Cage piece performed at that first concert) that featured performances of student compositions by other students as well as avant-garde works, in a “supportive” environment in which to present their “‘outside’ musical ideas,” says Malsky.
The teacher and mentor stayed in touch after graduation, often organizing programs. One recent night, over beers at Nick’s, says Thibodeau, the two began imagining Cage’s works in the intimate, ambient room. “Nick’s is a favorite watering hole and a great supporter of local music,” says Malsky. “It offers the kind of laid-back environment we’re looking for.”
The result is a four selection program, consisting of “Living Room Music” (a multi-movement piece for a percussion and speech quartet that involves making instruments of common household objects), the self-explanatory “Music for Amplifi ed Toy Piano,” the aforementioned “Imaginary Landscape no. 4” and the legendary “4’33”,” a work that has been the object of widespread scorn and ridicule and, for some, living proof of the scam that modern art represents. In fact, the audience howled and jeered at Cage after the inaugural performance of the piece in 1952.
I won’t spoil the fun or surprise for the uninitiated by describing the work (or by attempting to defend it). Another Cage piece currently being performed (yes, currently being performed) helps to suggest the creative world he inhabited. The 1985 “Organ 2/ASLSP” (“As Slow As Possible”) is underway in a chapel in Halberstadt, Germany. The performance, begun on September 5, 2001 (Cage’s 89th birthday), will continue for 639 years and is expected to continue until the year 2640. The first 17 months, for example, represented the opening rest prior to the first tone and a website allows the curious to hear the current tone.
It all probably sounds like hokum to the skeptical, but Cage’s work was rooted in his study of Buddhism and the I Ching, and he devoted himself to the revolutionary concept of incorporating chance into musical composition and performance. Further, in the years since his compositions sent classical audiences into fits, tectonic shifts in the scope of even the most mainstream and bland popular music has meant the adopting and embracing of much that was once avant-garde, like making instruments out of things like turntables, water drops, closed and prepared (manipulated) piano, and even elements of silence and sounds inherent in the performance space and among the crowd.
Malsky says that he and Thibodeau will be involved in every performance and “they may have to play a chair or a radio or something,” but, though “they may be challenging for the audience,” the works are “fairly standard for the performer.”
If this all sounds heady and uptight and overly serious, it isn’t. Thibodeau and Malsky are planning on a night of fun. When asked what we might expect from the show, Thibodeau shrugs off the question and says, “I think we’re all wondering that.” Malsky adds that the format, modeled after Cardew’s 1960’s London “Scratch Orchestra,” intends to bring together “‘musicians’ and those who wouldn’t usually call themselves musicians.”
“The personnel is always open,” Malsky adds. “We’ll fi nd a way for anyone who’s interested to participate. Michael and I are merely instigators.”
I clicked “Going.”
See the Cage and Cardew Society performance at Nick’s Bar and Restaurant, 124 Millbury St., Worcester on Wednesday, September 18 at 8 p.m.
Though the origins of the William Thompson Funk Experiment are low-key and comical, there’s nothing to laugh at with this solid, grooving outfit. Though the band maintains a laid-back attitude, it is a tight, expressive funk band that draws on lots of styles – both the expected and unexpected – to create a sound rooted in the traditions of funk and reggae, but cognizant of present styles, too.
The band, says guitarist Nick Sergeant, started out in the suburbs of Worcester as WTF, or “What the Funk,” and was long referred to by various plays on those initials. They had their eventual name handed to them at a Tammany Hall show a while back when a friend spontaneously announced them to the audience as the “William Thompson Funk Experiment.” The band rolled with it, and it’s been their name ever since.
William Thompson Funk Experiment brings its alternative, psychedelic funk to Tammany Hall in downtown Worcester for one of only a few area shows on Saturday, June 8.
Sergeant says that the band members bring a lot of variety to the stew. Though, he says, their collective favorite groups are Deep Purple and Ween, he also notes the influence of funk bands, like Lettuce and Parliament/Funkadelic, as well as cerebral rock groups, like Pink Floyd and Tool. Then, there’s the jazz background of the two members who attended Berklee. Last, he says, front man Nico Ramey brings some hip-hop and R&B flavor.
“Ocean Jam,” from last year’s “Shine Time,” sums up the band’s approach pretty well, bookending a rocking funk jam with a chill, ambient groove. Guitarist Nick Sergeant negotiates each vibe, offering ethereal whale calls and glistening, chorused chord fills in the mellow jam, and a balls-out wah-wah solo in the funk portion. Keyboardist Justin Bradley demonstrates high-level chops and intimate familiarity with vintage keys sounds, laying down chunky, spaced out Rhodes and wild synth pitch bending, with tones right off of ’70s records, by the likes of Pink Floyd, Herbie Hancock, or Weather Report.
Combined with Elote Villanueva’s soaring soprano sax soloing, and the faraway, freakout lyrics of front man Nico Ramey, twisted with digital delay, the tune really cooks, with great band interplay, big chops, and wide dynamics. It is a sonic delight.
The rhythm section of Adam Casten (bass) and Tim Hetu (drums) is just what you’d expect – and want – from a funk band: tight, dynamic, and potent.
The live act is a stoner party on stage, with steady dance grooves and a broad sonic palate of horns, keys, guitar, dubstyle rapping, and plenty of histrionics and ear candy, perfect for club music and perfect for the dancing Tammany throng, which loves WTFE.
It’s no surprise that the band has made its biggest impact in front of festival crowds, and has become a three-year regular at the Strange Creek Festival in Greenfield, Mass.; last year’s Open Road Festival in Worcester; and the Camp Cold Brook Festival in Barre (the band plays it on June 21).
Sergeant says that the band does best in front of the varied crowds that festivals tend to draw and that they’ve picked up lots of fans in that environment. It’s easy to see how someone who might not be attracted to funk per se might hear things to enjoy in WTFE’s sound, which, as Sergeant says, mixes reggae, hip hop, metal, and jazz, among other things. Musicologists, as well as dancers looking to be swept away, might both enjoy the heady, yet sophisticated blends.
“Make Choices,” for instance, has a soundscape akin to “Ocean Jam,” but with Nico sounding more like Sublime’s Bradley Nowell rapping over a mid-tempo funk groove, hating on haters. Sweet swelling horns polish the arrangement, which mixes loads of ear candy, chunking and wahing guitar and steady, percussive Rhodes over high-watt, walking bass and complex, but meaty drums.
Sergeant says that the band broke out several new songs at the recent Strange Creek show, which fans can expect to hear at Tammany, too. The band, he says, which makes the rounds of southern New England venues, is conscious of overplaying the Worcester area, and books their dates carefully. In fact, the Cold Brook Festival is the last event they have booked at the moment, so, get out and hear them when this opportunity arises.
Catch WTFE live on Saturday, June 8 at Tammany Hall, 43 Pleasant St. at 8 p.m. The band’s album “Shine Time” is available online at cdbaby.com/cd/williamthompsonfunkexper and at shows. You can learn more and stream tracks at reverbnation.com/williamthompsonfunkexperiment.
Back when I used to work in musical instrument retail at the Worcester branch of a New England chain, a kid in his late teens came in and started fiddling with some guitars. Seeing that he had chosen a nylon string classical-type, I opened my pitch with, “So, are you looking to learn classical guitar?” I was wholly unprepared for his response, which was, “Well, I mastered jazz, so I thought I would take up classical.”
I decided to leave him alone to master classical on the showroom floor.
Listening to the most recent release by the Galindo/Phaneuf Quartet, I now have that too-late response to that innocent youth’s comment: “Mastered Jazz? Okay, then, listen to this!” The Galindo/Phaneuf Quartet is what mastery of jazz sounds like, though the musicians here play with pious and disciplined seriousness and an absence of hubris and cliché that only a lifetime of devotion to craft can teach.
“Talkin’ Horns,” released this year, is a 12-track exploration of modern jazz in its totality, the type that emerged post-World War II, when the music transitioned from hot to cool, no longer acting as motivation for dancers, but as serious concert music.
Shockingly, the CD, recorded at Wellspring Studios, in Acton, Mass., was captured in one evening – nearly one and a half hours of really sophisticated stuff!
“Basically we ran through it in one night,” says Galindo by phone last week. “Every tune we recorded, except one, were all first takes. We usually did two takes of everything, but when we went back and listened to the stuff, we found the first take had the most fire and was overall the best.”
This is a startling revelation, considering the complexity of the work, both in terms of its intricate bebop heads and intuitive and dialedin free-jazz improvisation, which are balanced perfectly throughout.
“I mean, everyone can play well and knows the kind of material. There’s a lot of compositions, but there’s also a lot of improvisational interplay happening within the album,” says Galindo, “and these guys are some of the best at it.”
Indeed they are. These are musicians at the top of their field, a rarefied air of outrageous technical, historical, and intuitive musicianship, honed over decades in clubs, studios, and big stages around the world. Galindo alone, in addition to working on the Berklee faculty, has played with a who’s who of popular and jazz artists far too numerous to begin to name here.
“Talkin’ Horns” brings the combo to life with stunning fidelity and dynamics. The performances sound gorgeous, with lots of air and room. Over the mostly-original dozen tracks (except Duke Ellington’s “Angelica” and Bill Warfield’s “Kill Flow”), the quartet plays “Real Book” jazz, setting the tone with complex bop heads and then clearing space for wild improvisational jaunts that bring to mind the buoyancy of Charles Mingus and Rahsaan Roland Kirk, the modal complexity of Thelonious Monk, and the hot and cool, but always risktaking soloing of Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and John Coltrane.
The latter is thanks to Mark Phaneuf’s alto and soprano sax work, which shows a generous Bird influence, and the killer rhythm section of John Lockwood, on acoustic bass, and Bob Gullotti, on drums, who swing hard, create beautiful bridges between head and solo, and continuously pave an extraordinary road over which the horns solo. The interplay is phenomenal, the instruments intuiting and coalescing serendipitously in spontaneous composition.
Overall, it hearkens to the classic small combos that dominated the ’40s and ’50s. With liberal use of big intervals, a wide range of pleasant and jarring tones, and time-bending segments that evoke a ’60s film soundtrack for episodes of psychosis, the band paints with a broad palate, always executing with mastery, precision, knowledge, and sensitivity to the composition and the other instruments.
Jeff Galindo’s trombone work adds a refreshing, warm and playful sound, as an instrument that has been essential to jazz history, though not often in as central a role as heard here. Galindo really explores the full range of the horn, from the woozy, boozy passages in “Sola Power” to the blazing runs and elephant roars in “Broadway Excursions.”
The tenor sax work of George Garzone, who appears on five tracks, adds warmth to the rich horn blend, creating further harmonic complexities that bring to mind Miles Davis’ Gil Evans’ arrangements.
This is heavy jazz – really serious music. Lovers of Michael Buble and Kenny G need not apply. This is the hard stuff, for jazz fans, not tourists.
Galindo, the recipient of a 2013 Worcester Arts Council grant, hopes to use the benefit to bring more of this kind of important jazz to Worcester. Despite a rich music scene, he says, jazz is hard to find around town. He plans to change this by bringing some of these top-shelf musicians to Worcester, such as the group’s performance last week at Volturno Pizza, in the old Edward Buick building on Shrewsbury Street.
by Matt Robert / photo above by Stephen DiRado
Originally appeared in the May 8, 2013 issue of Worcester Magazine.
Becker College will celebrate its 225th Commencement on Saturday, May 11, and stage a one-night exhibit of Jacob Knight (born Roger Jaskoviak), the prominent local folk artist and the alumnus of the former Leicester Junior College (now the Leicester campus of Becker College), on Friday, May 10, from 6-9 p.m., as part if the College’s Commencement activities.
Though not exactly a household name, Jacob has a powerful cadre of acolytes and a number of avid collectors, who continue to bear the torch which illuminates this legendary character’s work. Combine this with the newfound attention from Jacob’s alma mater, in general, and its archivist, in particular, and then add a well-timed landmark in the college’s long history, and you just might have the catalyst to grow this accomplished artist’s status in the art world.
“First of all,” says Becker preservation archivist Nancy Richards, “we just really started putting this thing together in March. I had learned through my work in the archives that Jacob Knight had gone to school here, to Leicester Junior Academy, as Roger Jaskoviak, his birth name. He graduated in ’61.”
Jaskoviak, says Jonathan Cook and Kirk Jaskoviak’s biography assembled for the exhibit, had graduated from Spencer’s David Prouty High School, where he was a four-year class president, a dominant baseball and basketball player and track athlete, while also cartoonist for school publications, a drummer and drama club member. This last pursuit led him to Hollywood after graduation, where he appeared as an extra in several fi lms and acquired an acting contract, which he declined, choosing instead to return to the east coast. It sounds like a lot of details about Knight, but Richards says it’s only the tip of the iceberg.
“One thing we’ve discovered is that there is no book,” says Richards. “There’s no complete listing of all of his works, and my coming at it with some experience as a librarian is that sense of completeness is very important.
“And going online you don’t find tons of things, and so there are still lots of holes. Exactly where is that original? Does anybody own this? Does it still exist? What’s the year of that? What’s the exact medium? So, we have a lot of research ahead of us, because my hope is that we can continue working on trying to get a full listing of everything he did, where it is today, that sort of thing.”
Richard’s challenge is exacerbated by the fact of the still spotty catalogue of this artist, who, by all accounts, made art out of everything, at every chance. He painted commercial and uncommissioned works; he sculpted, he made figures, collages, and still life arrangements from detritus scavenged from the town dump; he played guitar, bass, and drums; and he wrote poetry. And since no one person knows entirely what he made or where all of it might have ended up, the quickly assembled collection is anything but complete.
But it is as good a place as any to start.
“I began thinking,” says Richards, “Wouldn’t it be nice to have an exhibit or do something?” The result is the Jacob Knight Art Exhibit, which Richards hopes will break the ground for a permanent collection at the college. “As part of the college archives, which we really just established last fall,” Richards says, “there’s going to be a Jacob Knight special collection. We’ve already received some donations for that. We’ll have biographical information as well as, references to, or copies of, or original pieces, and photographs and [ephemera] if people want to donate those.”
And start it has. Documents, reproductions, and originals, as well as letters and posters and catalogues, have begun pouring in from friends, acquaintances, and contemporaries of Knight.
And this is how it begins: The art community expresses excitement, art enthusiasts collect the work and drive up its value, and groups, like colleges and universities, research and compile information that helps to complete the picture, while scholars continue to explore the meanings and historical value of the artist and works.
“One of the things that has been very interesting,” says Richards, “is that all of the people who knew Jacob as friends or relatives or classmates, going back to childhood, have been surprised at what other people have brought in or have talked about. So, even among those closest to him, no one seems to know everything that he ever produced. So, there’s been a lot of discovery going on, even among his closest friends.”
This is the beginning, perhaps, the birth of a bright light in art while his friends and family are still around to tell the story, warts and all.
The exhibit, she says, is for the purpose of “bringing together various pieces of his work to renew interest in him” and “to introduce people, who might not have heard of him to the diversity of his work.”
To this end, Richards has gathered a pretty representative sampling of Knight’s work. “Not everything is an original. We do have giclees [digital copies made on inkjet printers with a pseudo-original texture] of most, or I think all, of [Knight’s] community scenes.”
Richards has gathered several original pieces, including a morose head sculpted from wood and dressed with metal and nails that once hung outside Knight’s front door on Wigwam Hill in West Brookfield, where he made a living museum of his Colonial-era home. She also has clean, detailed folk scenes painted onto old door panels, and a rusty piece of duct work, beaten flat when Knight found it en route to the Brookfield Elementary School where he volunteered in art classes, and identified by the students as looking like a cat. Then, there is the wide wood panel adorned with old leather boot scraps that look like cuddling animals.
Knight saw the potential art in everything.
Richards has collected photos by B.A. “Tony” King of the artist himself and his zany domain, beautiful black and whites of the artist at rest amid his imagination manifested as a home. Others chronicle the day that Knight built a towering sculpture of old bikes – right in the road.
Then, there are the album covers done by Knight, for The London Philharmonic and Corky Laing, the poster of “Carly Simon on Her Lion,” the Martex Linens catalogue for its funky 1970s “Home Is Where the Art Is” collection, for which Knight designed a set of beddings; magazine covers, and event flyers (including one for a poetry reading at Worcester’s former Coffee Kingdom, for which Union Music’s Carl Kamp was an opening act).
And, of course, the exhibit will feature the works for which Knight is perhaps best known: his classically nostalgic mural-like paintings commemorating the southern New England towns around which he grew up, like Palmer and the Brookfields. “The one he did of Palmer fills the back wall of their community room – it’s huge,” says Richards.
Others mark milestones of area businesses, like Ware’s Mary Lane Hospital’s 75th anniversary and Worcester’s Coughlin Electric’s 100th; and yet others simply mark milestones, like the Boston Common’s birthday, and the 1991 Sturbridge Harvest Festival (for which Knight always donated an outsized, outrageous scarecrow).
“He worked in acrylic or oil on canvas,” says Richards. “One of the pieces actually appears to be oil on drapery fabric. He did a lot of pieces that are what you would call ‘found objects’ or ‘bris-collage.’ He and some of his friends would make runs to the dump in West Brookfield to collect shoes, dolls, bottles, pans – almost anything you could think of,” says Richards, “and then create works from those.
“It’s a fairly common technique,” she says, “but Knight makes it distinctive. Many of the pieces he created were larger than life size.” One well known example, documented in one of the exhibit’s photographs, is a gigantic figure made entirely out of white enamel pots and pans that stood guard in his yard.
Knight excelled on canvas, too, creating meticulous, miniature worlds full of stories rooted in keen observation of geographic and cultural details, and, like Norman Rockwell, clues suggesting identities, including his own, in the works. “His works are also very personal. [In] the community scenes people can identify themselves and many times he’d work his friends in, even on album covers,” Richards says.
One such album cover, for Corky Laing’s 1977 album, “Makin’ it on the Street,” shows Jacob’s friend, the late Worcester familiar, Paul “Tiny” Stacey, who can be recognized by the blue plate he holds, signifying the Holden bar with which he is associated. An art blog features posts by “Sue Edling” discussing a painting of Knight’s that included several friends. Edling was disappointed at her omission, until Knight explained that she was a butterfly tucked safely under a boat at the bottom of the work.
“Knight excelled at both creating worlds and representing the world around him,” says Richards, “wherever that might be – Wigwam Hill, Martha’s Vineyard, Spencer or Palmer, Mass. and he did so with intelligence, ingenuity, insight, whimsy, and charm.”
So, despite the often biographical, literal nature of his folk paintings, he deemed his work “fantasy.” The term is fitting, as peculiar abstract elements often compete with otherwise documentary landscapes, such as a painting loaned to Becker by Frank and Patti White of West Brookfield, which naively depicts a small town and a disproportionately large white cat looming over the night horizon.
“It’s whimsical fantasy/folk art,” Richards says. “He had a great sense of color; and there is a real balance between human and animal life, and in many cases the animal life and nature predominate over the human images.”
THE PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST BY YOUNG ARTISTS
The house on Wigwam Road, where for decades, Jacob laid low and made art and friends (and perhaps a few disgruntled enemies among his neighbors), and which became in time something of a mecca for young artists who were drawn into his ever growing sphere of influence, bears little trace of the surrealism of his painted woodpiles and rock walls, his looming tin pan scarecrows, and the carved faces that emerged from trees throughout the surrounding woods. (The house remains, though the barn leans precariously to the ground.) The memories among some young artists transformed by Jacob Knight’s vision, however, burn bright as ever.
Stephen DiRado, a noted photographer based in Worcester, and an arts faculty member at Clark University, tells stories of social comment through his work. In the early ’80s, he shot a series at Worcester’s Bell Pond and another at the Galleria Shopping Mall.
He says that he met Jacob “in 1985 through a mutual artist friend, [realist, surrealist] Bryan Davagian.” Jacob, he says, had asked Bryan to drive him out to Knight’s home on Wigwam Road in West Brookfield, “to become acquainted and talk about life and art.” This led to a series of photos, at Wigwam Road, beginning in April of 1987, later published in DiRado’s book “Jacob’s House: Photographs 1987- 1994.” DiRado set up a makeshift studio in Jacob’s barn, where he made painstaking prints of the artist’s collections, and occasionally photographed the artist, too.
PHOTO: Portrait of Jacob Knight at his home by friend and fellow artist Stephen DiRado.
“My, or anybody’s, first visit to Jacob’s house is overwhelming,” says DiRado. “His environment makes any hardcore hoarder jealous. The only difference is that there was a sense of an aesthetic placement of everything collected about in his acres of yard, barn and house. It was a visual feast, and bewildering to the mind to comprehend the sanity of an individual who self-proclaims to be the caretaker of so much chaos.
“As a visual artist and one who documents community, I was hooked,” DiRado says. “Not only for what Jacob achieved with his collection, but [because] Jacob himself was an enormously charismatic individual that was impossible to neatly define. If you were willing to hold on and go for the ride, Jacob became a magician in front of your eyes, relentlessly performing his magic to an individual or willing audience.”
Beauty, though, rests in the eyes of the beholder, they say, and DiRado says Jacob was no exception. “To others, he was toxic and a recluse that was perceived to lack any sort of sophistication. Jacob was a bohemian to the bone.”
To DiRado, though, Jacob Knight was tonic not toxic. “It didn’t take me long – after a few visits – to love, respect and cherish a visionary that somehow, against all odds, in his early 50s, held onto the idealistic child within him,” he says. “Contrast this with a man that is well over 6 feet tall and looks like a lumberjack, sporting a prominent gold tooth when smiling.
“I was one of many artists that frequently drove down Wigwam Road, an old country road (at that time), to Jacob’s. We were all ears, like kids, hearing bedtime stories about his life.”
These stories are now the stuff of legend: “He was a baseball star in high school,” says DiRado, “worked briefly as an extra in Hollywood, and then moved to NYC to become a janitor at NYU in the art department. There he pulled out of the trash discarded canvases that he reworked to develop his own primitive maturing style. The finished paintings he sold out of the back of a van to the likes of Liza Minnelli, (Hungarian photographer) Andre Kertesz, (late folk guitarist) Richie Havens, members of the Rockefeller family and many more. It was hard to connect Jacob to any of these people,” says DiRado, “until he showed me photos of him side by side with all [of them].”
“Kertesz,” says DiRado, “has a portrait of Jacob in his book titled ‘Portraits.’ I was at a Richie Havens concert with Jacob in 1993, that impressed me the most. Havens, at the end of one of his songs looked out into the audience, spotted Jake and acknowledged him. Later, behind the stage, the two of them hugged and talked about old times.”
“Jacob proclaimed to be the keeper of the Brookfield’s dump. Five times a week he would rummage through new deliveries to bring back and archive an array of items. I witnessed him many times over file away books, picture frames, old photographs, toasters, kitchen utensils, and boxes. Boxes full of belongings to a recently deceased, a person’s history collected in a box to be thrown away because they were the end of the family line. Jacob felt somebody owed it to them to remember. I went through many of these boxes and relived many a stranger’s life.
“Over the years, starting in 1987, I made it a point to photograph Jacob in and around his house. Later, by the early ’90s, I invited Jake to stay with me and other friends on Martha’s Vineyard. We picked up our same conversations about life and art wherever we ended up together.”
DiRado recalls, “Upon my first visit, Jacob, now sober for a number of years, told me that his best friend for decades was Jack Daniel’s Whiskey, but it almost killed him. Sadly, with no effective say in the matter, I witnessed Jacob’s return to drinking by early 1993. Jacob died in the fall of 1994.”
For Rhode Island painter Don Cadoret, “My relationship with Jacob Knight began in the early 1980s when I went to photograph him for stories for publication. And, after first meeting him, I immediately became — I don’t know — entranced, transformed, whatever, because we were both painters and of very similar style or look at life, and from that point on, I was at his house two or three times a week photographing him, bringing paintings up and we would work out details and try to solve compositional and story elements. So, I knew him for probably 10 or 12 years.
“He was definitely the attraction,” says Cadoret. “So many people would show up at his door just to visit with Jacob and it could be problematic, because he was trying to get work done, but he never turned anyone away. He loved having visits and talking about art or the way he saw the world.
“I refer to it, I guess, as a childlike sense,” he says. “He was kind of a poet with a paintbrush and I think that’s how I changed my outlook at that point, thinking in more poetical terms, but it was still very childlike, and my work has a similar feel to it. And so I think that connection between us was immediate. He was a story painter, so he would infuse his paintings with story, vibrant colors — it was whimsical and serious at the same time. I really enjoyed that aspect of his work, and his personality matched it perfectly.”
“He kind of was putting this word out, calling it ‘folkism,’” says Cadoret, “but the whole word ‘folk’ sometimes has a negative connotation. ‘Naïve’ style is probably more correct, because he intentionally chose to paint in a naïve style, because I think it was easier to convey the story he wanted to tell and ultimately it became easily accessible for everybody else to pick up what he was saying, be it in an illustration or some of his more magical works before that, in the ’60s and ’70s.
“It’s been an argument in art circles for maybe 30 or 40 years or more about the word ‘folk art’ and how it is applied to artists, either contemporary or artists that have been dead for decades,” he says. “I guess they’re more comfortable with the phrase with long dead artists and folk artists, and when you call someone a contemporary folk artist it’s almost a slur — not really a serious artist, although Jacob really believed he was a serious artist, and he was a serious artist and an illustrator at the same time.”
Cadoret says that “anyone who is totally passionate about it and can’t do anything but that; they’re just obsessed with their painting and creating. To me, that’s a serious artist, whether they get recognized or not. Jacob had his own recognition during his lifetime; not as much since then, although it’s definitely long overdue, because I believe he was definitely a serious artist and, by Becker acknowledging that and really wanting to get behind an important alum that they have, hopefully will bring more of his work out into the forefront.”
Jacob Knight’s works have not yet garnered the auction prices that would make an “Antiques Roadshow” contestant gasp or earn TV news highlights. Several auction websites record sales in the past decade that top out at about $1,200 for one of Knight’s paintings, with several others ranging from $400 to $1,000. Still, the enthusiasm of people like Cadoret and DiRado, who still carry the verve of those whose lives have been altered by the model of another, is a good start. Add to that, the rich anecdotes of a life lived with passion, spontaneity, and vision (Jacob was an untrained artist. It is said that he spent exactly one day at an art school in Boston. The instructor held up a paintbrush and said, “This is a paintbrush.” Jacob quit.) and you have the kernels that may sprout into a posthumous career with legs. In fact, a bulletin board on askart.com teems with posts inquiring about the deceased artist, from former schoolmates relating his sports heroics to those who were inspired by Jacob Knight’s ways, on and off canvas, and many others hoping to contribute to some kind of complete biography of the man.
“We’re just working our way into it,” says Richards at Becker. “[He is a] very interesting man and I think the thing that I’ve noticed most strongly is how beloved he remains almost 30 years after he died. The people who knew him just love him.”
Attend a reception for the Jacob Knight Art Exhibit at Becker College on the Leicester Campus, in the George F. and Sybil H. Fuller Campus Center, 964 Main St., Leicester on Friday, May 10 from 6-9 p.m. Those interested in contributing Jacob Knight artwork to the exhibit should call the Becker College Office of Institutional Advancement at 508-373-9531.
By Matt Robert
Originally appeared in the May 2, 2013, Worcester Magazine.
Worcester doesn’t make everybody’s top 10 list, though it does have a special place for some, like horrorcore, rock/rap act Insane Clown Posse (ICP).
“Worcester is like top three out of everywhere in the country, maybe even number one,” Violent J, a founding member of the band, says.
“We can always count on the shows at The Palladium to be off the fucking hook and they always are and it just is a great, great thing for us,” he says. “And we’re really just grateful for that.”
The band returns to its favorite local haunt, The Palladium, on tour in support of its latest release “The Mighty Death Pop,” on Saturday, May 4.
“I don’t know what it is,” says J, “but from day one when we used to come through town, we used to draw really well there and had a lot of love and the shows were really super energetic and super awesome, and it’s just a blessing, man! That city is a wonderful place on tour.”
PHOTO: Insane Clown Posse fanatic, Juggalo, Joe Dayter shows off his ICP tattoo, clothing and face paint. Steven King/Worcester Mag
And J looks forward to seeing the excited throngs in Worcester again next week. “I feel really indebted to the city,” he says. “I mean, I really do. Me and Shaggy, last time we played town, it was Shaggy’s birthday, and we went out there and we stopped the show and we thanked everybody for the years of support and everything and we threw a big cake in Shaggy’s face. It was awesome, man!”
The duo, which has carved out a very successful career, including gold and platinum records (nearly 7 million sales total), a 20-year touring log, and a rabid legion of fans known as “Juggalos” and “Juggalettes,” despite maintaining a largely underground reputation, promises something new this time around for the diehards on a tour that will feature daily shows over about five weeks, spanning the country, from California to New York, Worcester to Florida, according to the singer.
“This show is an all-new show for us,” says J. “We’re doing a bunch of songs we’ve never done before in concert and we’re doing a bunch of stuff differently. At the last Gathering of the Juggalos (the band’s annual festival), during our seminar, we made the promise that the very next time we went on tour, the Mighty Death Pop Tour, we would do things differently.”
The all-new show, says J, came about, because of the particular demands of their rabidly loyal following. “That’s for the Juggalos that have seen us 15 times, 20 times, 50 times – to those Juggalos who come out to every show – which is probably a majority of the audience – people that have seen us before, we’re going to switch things up and show that we can deliver a brand new, all new show.”
Fans of the scene shouldn’t worry about losing the old with the new songs, skits, and rearrangements, J says, because “we’ll still have plenty of Faygo and the regular tactics of ICP.”
“There are songs off the new album, ‘The Mighty Death Pop,’ and there are songs out of the back catalogue that we’ve never done live before. This time we’re going to experiment. We don’t know if it’s going to be the kind of songs that go over well. We’re going to have to fi nd out live in concert. But we just wanted this one tour to do something different. We’re going to really dig into it and we’re not going to just pull out rarities and stuff that only die-hard super-fans know. We’re just going to do songs that we never thought about doing live before and figure out ways to do them live and hope it gets over.”
In addition to regular touring, a steady flow of records, film work, and a growing annual festival that has featured a long list of mostly rap acts, and more oddball celebrities than “The Surreal Life,” (Vanilla Ice, Charlie Sheen, and Cheech and Chong are just a few) Violent J is also pretty excited about the band’s new DVD set: “The Riddle Box Weekend.”
“It’s good times!” says J of the DVD that captures a weekend event in February of a live performance at St. Andrew’s Hall in Detroit, of the band’s 1995 independently released gold record, “The Riddle Box.”
“A lot of people, it takes them back to the days of ‘The Riddle Box,’” says J. “When that album came out we were new, there was mystery to us. This is the days before YouTube and all that, and that show, that whole weekend, kind of took people back to the mid ‘90s and those days when things were more of a mystery about ICP, and every question that no one could answer was filled with an answer in their own heads, something they wanted to hear, or wanted to believe.”
“For that one weekend we went back to those times and you could feel it in the air at that show. Boy! You could cut the excitement with a knife in there, and it was so cool. The show sold out in like a day and a half, and it was the hottest ticket we’ve ever had. People wanted that ticket from all over the country, to go see that show, and it was an experiment, but it was really a success.”
The DVD set also features a disc of that weekend’s JCW (Juggalo Championship Wrestling) event. “We put on a big wrestling event and it was called ‘Oddball Brawl,’” says J, “which featured some pretty big names, guys that were formerly in the WWE, on top of JCW’s biggest stars, and that whole show was a lot of fun.” Professional wrestling figures prominently in the band’s cultural sphere; Violent J grew up a fan of wrestling and worked as a wrestler in the late 1980s before founding the Insane Clown Posse.
Violent J even sees pro wrestling as a metaphor for the ICP experience. “It’s a lot like pro wrestling: nobody believes it’s real, but they all still want to escape and get away with it and boo the bad guy and cheer the good guy.”
“I think Juggalos want to live the vigilante tales that we talk about. ICP has a lot of strong opinions against the evils of the world, like racist people and fucking pedophiles and the evils of the world, and I think Juggalos like to get caught up in the vigilante tales that our music provides.”
“I think our music reaches people with an imagination, people that maybe it takes a little more to entertain them than just a fancy song. They get lost in the stories of the music, and they get lost in the saga of the Dark Carnival,” says J. “Because we all have to live and breathe in a real world all the fucking time, and they want to go to a concert and they want to get lost in it.”
“It’s like therapy,” he adds. “It’s no different than a comic book or any movie. People of all walks of life are Juggalos. The only thing I know that they all have in common is they have a big brain with a lot of imagination.”
See Insane Clown Posse live at The Palladium on Saturday, May 4. Doors open at 7 p.m., show starts at 8 p.m. Tickets $30 at thepalladium.net.
http://media.worcestermag.com/images/470*247/Jennings_Kim_story.jpgBy Matt Robert
Originally appeared in the May 2, 2013, Worcester Magazine.
Local singer-songwriter Kim Jennings may not have picked up the guitar until after college (her instrument of choice since then), but she has had a lifetime of music; and she may be young, but she hasn’t wasted any time pursuing her dreams.
Kim will celebrate the release of her sophomore effort, “Here Now,” with a concert at the Amazing Things Art Center, in Framingham on Friday, May 10, with fellow singer-songwriter and Massachusetts native Jesse Hanson opening the show. “She’s a phenomenal, young songwriter, multiinstrumentalist,” says Kim.
“So, we’ll do the whole thing: vocals and harmony singers and electric guitar and the full drums and all that good stuff and piano and all that – everything,” she says, adding that she’ll feature the “songs on the CD and probably…a couple of more acoustic songs from my last record.”
This rising star has been busy. After a childhood filled with music, she attended Harvard, where, as a member of choral and a cappella groups, she honed her celebrated voice, and performed all over the world.
Since graduating, she has released a four-song independent demo, “Draft,” in 2008, and a 13-song debut CD, “My Own True North,” in 2009; has won the 2010 Pulse Worcester Music Award for “Best Female Vocalist;” has been a fixture on the local circuit, including gigs at the prestigious Club Passim, in Cambridge; and last year completed a mini-tour of the pacific northwest.
If all that weren’t enough, this industrious folkie started her own record label, Birch Beer Records, with friend and fellow artist Dan Cloutier, which now has a stable of about five artists, including Kim, Dan, Levi Schmidt, Oen Kennedy, and Tom Smith, and has released about 12 albums.
But that’s not all! Kim and Dan also founded “I Support Local Music in Massachusetts” (the Facebook page has over 13,000 likes), a clubhouse for local musicians and supporters, with opportunities for writers who can contribute reviews, etc.
The CD release party will feature Kim with a backing band, a direction that follows from her new CD, which branches out from the strictly acoustic “True North”, and into new textures and emotions, many of them veering dangerously out of folk and into rock, backed by Dan, who adds rich, evocative flute and electric guitar; Eric Anderson, doubling on bass and drums; and Eric Salt, who adds percussion, while handling production duties, as well.
“We started the recording process back in October,” Kim says of “Here Now,” “but I’ve been writing music since my last CD came out in 2009. My first record is very acoustic driven whereas this one is much bigger sounding, with a full band and that sort of thing, with a lot of variety. There’s still some acoustic, but it’s much more of a bigger sound.”
“We wanted to do some live recording to get that really organic feel for the music. I wanted it to sound just really authentic and natural and so we were able to do great live drums with electric guitar and a number of vocal tracks as well as my acoustic guitar with piano recorded live.”
At the heart of the new CD is Kim, the folk songwriter, and the tunes still ring with the plain honesty of folk, shunning the platitudes, posturing, and sensationalism of commercial rock. She stills sings beautifully and delicately about things like the home she has built with her husband and child (“I Love You So”) and the innocence of playing outside in the snow (“Angel in Snow”), both of which glow with aching lead vocals and crystalline harmonies, and beautiful acoustic instrumentation.
With “Here Now,” however, she also explores edgier modes, such as on “Valley of the Shadow,” which is driven by fuzzed guitar and crisp drums, while Kim explores Old Testament trials and her pursuit of peace; and the pure rock of the opening track, “Get out of My Head,” on which she sings the regrets of a rocky relationship, while Dan invokes Middle Eastern motifs with tremolo and distortion. Several other tunes rock out, providing a nice balance of energetic numbers and ballads, while maintaining a tonal consistency throughout.
“The song that ended up being the title track was written later in the game,” Kim says. “The song is called ‘Here Now’ and, to me, there’s a sense of people wanting to find a place to belong; people have questions about what choices we have and sometimes we may make choices that are not always the best for us. You come from a place of asking questions about your life and where are you and a lot of it comes down to you want to feel like you belong somewhere.”
The Amazing Things show will benefit a charity organization close to Kim’s heart: “I’m doing a birthday fundraiser for an organization called Carrying Water,” she says, “which does fundraising projects for clean water in developing countries.”
After the event, she says, she will be “working on booking and balancing the rest of life. I’m planning another trip out to the Northwest. A little bit of travel, a little bit of touring and playing out as much as I can.”
“I’ve got a big book of film contract people and I’m trying to wrap my head around how to get some of the songs placed in that way,” she says, “and I’m playing out a bunch locally and figuring out where the music can go.”
The show, she says, will show “how my music has really evolved will be really fun for folks to see. It’s a departure for folks who haven’t seen me for a while, so it will be really fun for them.”
Don’t miss the CD release show for Kim Jenning’s newest album “Here Now” on Friday, May 10 at the Amazing Things Art Center, 160 Hollis St., Framingham at 8 p.m. amazingthings.org.
By Matt Robert
Written for “Transformations,” the W.P.I. alumni magazine, to accompany an article on members of the J. Geils Band that attended W.P.I. in the 1960s. The article never appeared.
Despite the serendipitous meeting of John Geils Danny Klein, and Richard “Magic Dick” Salwitz as young coeds at W.P.I. in the late 1960s, perhaps the members of the band now wish that they had attended law school instead. The legendary good time party band set out looking for a love, but, like many who make it big, has found that love stinks and that maybe one-time friends really do look at the purse.
A lawsuit, filed by the sanctuary-seeking Mr. Geils, charges the other band members (including his former college mates) for performing under the band name – his name! – without him.
“The simple back story,” says Mr. Geils’ attorney, Chuck Grimes, a specialist on intellectual property rights, “is that Mr. Geils was born and raised with this name, J. Geils, and in 1967 he started performing under the name, and started a group, The J. Geils Blues Band,” which, he says, has “always been known as the J. Geils Band.”
“And now,” Grimes adds, “the other fellows got the idea that they own the name, not Mr. Geils. As you can imagine, that was rather disconcerting to Mr. Geils, and that they would go so far as to – frankly – interfere with his efforts to perform as himself – never as the J. Geils Band, but as himself.”
Adding insult to injury, Geils felt, the other band members “took upon themselves to…appear…without him in an Adam Sandler movie [Grownups 2. Adam Sandler is reportedly a big fan], and now they’re on tour as The J. Geils Band without him [the band embarked on the “Houseparty 2012” tour in late August], and they’ve never done that before.”
Everything had been a house party, according to Grimes, throughout the ‘70s, until the band experienced big-time success with the release of a string of gold records, beginning with 1978’s Sanctuary and climaxing with 1981’s massive pop-crossover Freeze Frame, which reached #1 in the U.S. and went platinum. That’s when they met with a Detroit Breakdown, he says, and advisors were brought on board to form a corporation and coerce group members into signing shareholders’ agreements.
The other band members now contend that Mr. Geils, in signing the agreement, ceded rights to the band name, which Grimes says is not so.
“A shareholder’s agreement doesn’t transfer rights from Mr. Geils,” says Grimes. “It says that we’ll operate together as shareholders.” The trademark, he says, is the linchpin and the prevailing legal factor. “It’s his name! He has the trademark rights in it,” says Grimes.
Grimes sees it as an open-and-shut case for Geils, citing that, upon registration of the band name by the remaining members the U.S. Patent/Trademark office asked, “‘Is this the name of a living individual? Do you have his consent to register his name?’”
“Could there be any more clear indication?” Grimes asks.
Grimes remains unsure how long the litigation will drag on, whether it will ever go to trials, or whether band members will play together again. He says that it depends on “how much bad blood” remains among band members “when all of this clears.” Overall, though, he says he just wishes that everybody could “figure out a way to play nice in the sandbox.”
“We are very proud of our 18 years as we thought it would not last more than three,” says Dolly Vazquez, of Worcester’s Centro Las Americas, about the 18th Latino Film Festival, which runs April 2 through April 7, at Clark University’s Cinema 320 in the Jefferson Academic Center, and College of the Holy Cross’ Seelos Theater in the Kimball Dining Hall.
Despite the group’s cautious initial hopes, the festival has grown into a local tradition for a cadre of area students, film buffs, and the Latino community, and this year will present six films beginning on Tuesday, April 2 at 7:30 p.m at Clark with the 2011 Argentinean comedy “Mi Primera Boda” (My First Wedding), and ending on Sunday, April 7 at 4 p.m with the 2011 Cuban comedy “Juan De Los Muertes” (Juan of the Dead), also at Clark. Inbetween, the colleges will play host to films on Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday of that week, at a variety of times, from the 2008 Mexican-American sci-fi film “Sleep Dealer” and Uruguay’s 2009 “Mal Dia Para Pescar” (Bad Day to Go Fishing), to the 2011 Argentinean comedy “Un Cuento Chino” (Chinese Take-Out).
Admission for the films is $6 for the general public and $4 for students with a valid I.D. and senior citizens. Additionally, the lone film at Holy Cross, the Thursday, April 4, 4 p.m. showing of “Sleep Dealer,” is presented free of charge and will include a live conversation via Skype from Los Angeles with the film’s director, Alex Rivera.
“Eighteen years ago Centro Las Americas decided to present a series of Puerto Rican movies and I asked the help of Clark University’s film professor, Marvin D’Lugo, to help organize it,” Vazquez says. “Over the years other colleges have joined in, so this year we have Centro, Clark University, College of the Holy Cross, WPI, Assumption College, and QCC.”
“That first year we called it the Puerto Rican Film Festival,” she says. “But the following year we realized that Puerto Rico did not have a big enough film industry and that Centro represents a broader spectrum of Latinos than those from Puerto Rico, so we started calling it the Latino Film Festival.”
“The highlight every year is that people can see films made in Latin America that otherwise they might not see in big theaters,” says Vazquez, “and to engage Spanish students of the participating colleges in an exciting learning experience. Because all films have English subtitles, we want to offer the English speaking audience an opportunity to see films by Latin American countries. We also succeed in uniting Latinos and Anglos in appreciation of Latin-American culture.”
As for the audience attracted to the festival, Vazquez says that “the festival is open to the public in general and we get a big mix. The regular audience of Cinema 320 usually also comes to our films as well as students from the various colleges and a wide collection of friends from the community.”
Vazquez sees dual goals for the festival. “It is a combination of showcasing Latin films as art, but also to get a cross mix of audience together,” she says.
“Without the collaboration with all the colleges involved,” she adds, “this festival could not happen.”
Find the schedule of films at cinema320.wordpress.com.
By Matt Robert
Michael Tougias (“Toe-Giss”), of Plymouth, Mass., has penned 19 books on the outdoors and history, and, for his last five, focusing on “true survival at sea,” he says. He has been in the area lately presenting his latest program, “Survival Lessons: Peak Performance Under Pressure,” a “kind of a fun little side thing” he says of his work researching and writing on ocean rescue and the range of survival skills he sees as being applicable to everyday life.
“The business program I put together – I just did it for Raytheon – it’s a presentation for companies that, say, they are having a sales meeting or something like that,” says Tougias. “And I do a one hour kind of a keynote presentation using slides about what I learned from survivors, people who shouldn’t be on the planet, but, somehow, got through their ordeal.”
The program, he says, demonstrates “techniques they used to overcome these incredible hurdles, and then how they could be applicable in our daily lives when they’re faced with a real challenge.”
Tougias traces his writing origins to the early 1990s and to freelancing for Worcester Magazine, where he wrote a series of articles about “lesser known outdoor spots” in central and southeastern Massachusetts.
“At that time I had done a couple books,” he says. “I was living in Franklin (Mass.) and I was doing a lot of hiking in Central Mass. I was working in the business world and one day did my very first story – it was a little story about the Charles River, and when that got published, a little light went off that said, ‘Hey! This is more fun than business.’”
From there, Tougias “moonlighted as a writer for many years and then segued out of the corporate world. I went part-time at a business job and parttime as a writer. And since six years ago I’ve been full-time.”
“I was always a big outdoors lover,” he says. “What changed my career path was this book called “Ten Hours Until Dawn” (published in 2006 by St. Martin’s Press). It’s about a survival-at-sea rescue story during the blizzard of 1978 (off the coast of Salem, Mass.). I was given an audio tape of what the men said onboard the boats that were in distress that night, and, boy! It sure got my attention. I said, ‘What a book this would make!’ So, I hit the brakes and changed focus.”
He now boasts a full-time writing career, a host of awards, a March 15 feature on ABC’s “Chronicle” and an upcoming appearance on 20/20 (date to be announced), the former for his insights into a Gulf Stream rescue in which several individuals were lost, and the latter for his general accumulated expertise on ocean rescue.
“The story on ‘Chronicle’ is about a brandnew book of mine titled ‘A Storm Too Soon’ (2013, by Scribners), and the subtitle tells it all: ‘A true story of disaster, survival and an incredible rescue.’”
“The 20/20 interview was different,” says Tougias. “They had me talk a little bit about ‘A Storm Too Soon,’ but they were more interested in some of the survival lessons learned that I used in that talk for businesses. They’re doing a show called ‘Saved,’ about different survivors, so they had me as the kind of the expert on [it], so we did a lot of taping down in New York. I don’t know when it’s going to run, though.”
And if that isn’t success enough, “The Finest Hours,” the 2009 book Tougias co-authored with Casey Sherman, has been picked up by Disney and is slated for production.
“They’ve gotten over the first hurdle of turning the book into a screenplay,” he says. “Disney representatives were down there scouting it out and I had dinner with them. They were looking over the potential sites.”
That book, on which the film is to be based “was about a 1952 rescue off Cape Cod. It’s one of the largest rescues in Coast Guard history. You had two giant oil tankers split in half on the same day near the same location. The Coast Guard was totally overwhelmed and they didn’t have the helicopter rescues back then.”
While Tougias says that “those same skills that I used in the history books helped here,” he says that writing these last five rescue books “is a lot more fun, because you’re interviewing people, not archives.”
“For example,” he says, “today at four o’clock I have an interview with a C-130 pilot, who found the sinking Bounty. That’s the next book I’m doing, about The Bounty sinking in Hurricane Sandy [in October, 2012].”
Visit http://www.michaeltougias.com to learn more about Tougias’s books, to check the dates for upcoming television appearances, and to find the location of an upcoming talk in Massachusetts or Connecticut.
Local club owners Vincent Hemmeter and Nicole Watson don’t just launch boiler plate ventures. They have singular visions and shoot for high quality. Take Nick’s, for instance. They didn’t just swap the name on the old Stoney O’Brien’s, sweep the floor and hang a few new beer signs. Like Vincent’s, they gutted it and unearthed a structural treasure over which they built a room of character.
The same attention goes to their entertainment. Both present entertainment that may not please all tastes, but each of which is sure to excite audiences of a certain mind. Nick’s has really homed in on their thing: jazz and cabaret, and they’ve assembled a stable of area musicians that turns out quality productions of a variety you would equate with big cities.
Nick’s doesn’t stop with good ideas, though. When they present one of their increasingly popular revues, they shoot for the deep cuts.
On the weekend of March 22-24, Nick’s will stage four performances of their latest idea, “The Unknown Ellington,” featuring works by The Duke’s multi-decade career as a pioneering jazz composer and bandleader.
“If you were to put a few jazz musicians together and just let them jam, I can guarantee you that before the night is out you will always hear a quantity of Duke Ellington songs, such as ‘Take the A Train,’ ‘Satin Doll,’ ‘Perdido,’ etc.,” says Nick’s co-owner Nicole Watson. “But doing a show with such over-exposed material would be way too easy and not much of a challenge for the musicians or the audience.”
Instead, says Watson, the Nick’s “house band” will dig deeper into the Ellington catalogue, making a show that might please a casual jazz fan, but provide something extra for the connoisseur, as well.
Most jazz lovers are familiar with ‘I Got it Bad (and That Ain’t Good),’ written by Ellington for his 1941 musical ‘Jump for Joy,’” says Watson. “Our concept allows us to bypass that well-known song and, instead, present two lesser-known songs: ‘Just Squeeze Me’ and ‘Brown Skin Gal in the Calico Gown.’”
Additionally, the group will perform other rarities, such as “Take Love Easy,” from Ellington’s ill-fated 1946 Broadway musical “Beggar’s Holiday,” which, Watson says, was crowded out of a season overrun with blockbusters. The piece will be performed “as a duet for Dan Burke and Linda Dagnello,” she says.
Another highlight for Ellington buffs will be Ellington’s “forgotten instrumental recording, ‘Starting With You I’m Through,’” which Watson says “is only known to exist on a single.” This version, which will be performed by Nick’s regular Dan Burke “expressly for this production, is possibly the first public vocal performance anywhere,” she says.
Nick’s commitment to live music has rewarded them with a growing circle of first-rate musicians with an ambitious bent. The personnel for this production is no exception. The return of four-time Nick’s revue musical director, Frank Racette, will be of particular interest, as he knew and worked directly with Ellington at the end of The Duke’s long career.
“Racette was responsible for Ellington being presented with an honorary degree from Berklee College of Music in 1971,” says Watson, and “he continues to maintain ties with the Ellington family,” adding, “in fact, Duke’s grandson, Edward Ellington II, has been very encouraging to us as we have been planning this event.”
“The performers involved in the show have shown themselves to be adventurous and open to trying new things,” says Watson. “Brian Koning, who was such a hit on trumpet in our Chet Baker production, will be using several types of vintage mutes that he has never tried before, and our drummer, Tom Spears … will be adding castanets to his percussion arsenal.”
Heavyweight area jazz vocalist Linda Dagnello will also be featured. “We suspect that she will stop the show with her bluesy version of ‘Rocks in My Bed,’ which was written by Ellington for the legendary Kansas City blues singer Big Joe Turner.”
Asked why they might tackle ambitious productions like this, while other rooms settle for risk-free money makers, Watson says, “Despite the great deal of effort that goes into it, I find it very personally rewarding. Worcester audiences are very savvy music lovers,” who, she says, “have proven it with their attendance to our previous sold-out productions of revues of Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, and Chet Baker.”
The logistics, she says, are daunting. “A production like this requires an enormous amount of planning, coordination and work for everyone involved.” Yet, the result, she says, is “a top-shelf product … with a very theatrical experience for the audience.”
According to Watson, Nick’s has “added extra performances to allow more patrons to attend and to enjoy a great night of music in an intimate venue” where the cover charge is quite reasonable “for the quality of the show, which one would find at such venues as Sculler’s or the Metropolitan Room in New York City.”
“I am confident that the intelligent and curious music lovers of Worcester and beyond will support this ambitious project,” Watson says.
by Matt Robert
photo by Steven King
Originally appeared in the January 31, 2013 Worcester Magazine
“I’m not going to say the B word,” says guitarist/vocalist Jon Short about Big Eyed Rabbit, the trio he shares with bassist Jeff Burch and drummer Duncan Arsenault. Listeners may be tempted to categorize them under that genre that starts with a B and even draw comparisons to that two-piece Akron band named after the ebony part of a piano and that Detroit duet named after a stripe.
The band, which plays a bill with local jam outfit WHAT at Green Street’s Lucky Dog Music Hall on Saturday, February 9, is protective of its identity and careful about how they are cast in print. But Big Eyed Rabbit, which does draw at least some of its form from the conventions of that music, is only blues the way the Black Keys are blues, or Medeski, Martin and Wood or Dub Apocalypse are jazz. Then again, it’s hard to play guitar-based music in America with the 20th century right in the rearview mirror without knowingly or unwittingly paying homage to blues.
Titles aside, though, Big Eyed Rabbit plays a loud, joyful and visceral stew of John Lee Hooker groove built on Jeff’s deep bass and Duncan’s swinging, forceful drumming, underpinning Jon’s analog tube amp growl, rife with open-note harmonics and reliable alternating thumb-picked bass notes, while he sings about matters of love or relationship entanglements.
The story is in the behind-the-scenes aspects of the band: the vetting process that brought this particular lineup together, the approach to the stage act and recording, and a general philosophy that, though backed by unshakable conviction on the part of the band members, can nevertheless be difficult to articulate.
“I wanted to be able to stand up and play electric and stretch out,” says Jon, “but I needed my thumb to be able to be where it needed to be and I needed to find the kick drum.”
The band’s origin goes back 10 years to when Jon and Jeff played together in a “funk-jazz” group called The Late Messengers. “I pretended that I knew how to play keyboards with [Jeff] on bass it worked out all right,” says Jon.
The rest of the story happened at The Dive Bar, where Duncan’s Thursday night series became sort of a Minton’s Playhouse for Worcester, bringing together a growing circle of varied players in a low-risk cauldron that patiently produced numerous lineups, several of which have since been concretized into stable bands.
“Jon came to do many Thursdays,” says Duncan, “and … sometimes Jeff would play bass … and it was becoming apparent, the more we played, that, boy! When Jeff is there, when it’s that combination, something different happens that – you can kind of just tell when a band is sort of clicking.”
“We did a lot of gigs here,” says Jeff, “and even played the Open Road [Festival], I think it was a couple of years ago, and didn’t have a name yet, and then it was even probably a good six months after that that we decided, you know what, we should probably just put a name on it.”
“The thing for me,” says Jon “– when Duncan first called me to come down here to do Thursdays, I said, ‘I’d love to, but no bass player and no rehearsal.’”
“I was sincerely interested in developing that kind of organic relationship with another musician, and that’s one of the things that I felt I had developed with Jeff,” Jon adds. “That was a part of growing those legs back with The Late Messengers … It was about the experience of being there, about playing.”
“I don’t think that we ever really talked about stuff, or that we ever really had to have conversations about stuff,” says Jon, noting the chemistry the three felt when they played together.
“I think the only conversations that I have with Duncan sometimes is, ‘Hey! This song, tonight, that groove that we had, that’s the one,’” adds Jeff. “All of a sudden it clicks and it’s like, ‘Yeah! That’s the one.’”
“That’s essentially the spirit of the Thursdays in the first place,” adds Duncan. “Within the first verse we’ve said enough to each other musically that we know where we’re going to go.”
The band first appeared as Big Eyed Rabbit “at The Lucky Dog the weekend after Scott [Ricciuti] died,” says Duncan, in April of 2012, but Jon says that he knew well before “that these were the guys I wanted to play with. I was set … When I get to play with these guys it’s something else for me. It draws something else out.”
With a gig booked for Vermont’s Tweed River Music Festival for the summer of 2012, Big Eyed Rabbit needed a recording. Pressed for time, they rented The Lucky Dog for a night and brought in friend and engineer Paul Dagnello of the band Huck, who scrambled to rent the best gear he could find. They spent the night cutting essentially live tracks in the empty club, a radical departure in this day of albums produced with the benefit of limitless tracks and editing on digital workstations.
The result is a six-track CD of spirited romps through warm, hugesounding grooves that form a pretty good representation of the band’s live sound: reckless, confident, and youthful, and at once new and fresh and utterly familiar. They aren’t so much looking back or looking forward, but looking around, making use of years of acquisition of a musical catalogue, chops, and ears.
The CD is indicative of the age and experience of these musicians – fulltimers with a lot of collective years in the business, who have brought a lot of high quality music to the local scene and have, through the age-old process of hard work and continued effort, arrived in the same place at the right time to create a shared musical vision that embodies their musical and extra-musical philosophies.
And that’s the kind of relationship anybody can understand.
Catch Big Eyed Rabbit at Lucky Dog Music Hall, 89 Green Street on Saturday, February 9 at 9 p.m.
Article originally appeared in the January 24th Worcester Magazine.
Photos by Steven King
By Matt Robert
There’s local music and there’s local music. Although Nat Needle has only lived in Worcester for a little over 12 years, the New York City native has adopted our city as his home, both as the place to live and raise his children and as the muse for his songwriting.
“I love Worcester and it’s been a great place to raise my kids,” Nat shares over the phone. “And there are many reasons for that, one being the diversity of it – the polyglot nature of it, and then the size, which means there’s always about two degrees of separation, which is pretty neat, and makes it easier to get fun things done.”
Nat has encapsulated his impressions of Worcester and some of its more prominent citizens, as well as a few local hallmarks, including the general condition of its streets, on “Worcester Potholes,” whose release he’ll celebrate at a release party on Thursday, January 31 at Nick’s Bar and Restaurant on Millbury Street.
The disc, which Nat says, “is an expression of my role here as sort of a cultural activist, who is a Worcester booster,” lightly satirizes the heart of the Commonwealth in the tradition of Capital Steps and other politically-themed stage acts with a sound you might liken to Randy Newman or Louis Prima. In fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch to hear Nat Needle on Dean Martin’s Celebrity Roast.
“It’s kind of a musical guidebook to Worcester. It’s meant to be full of in-jokes and resonating experiences for people who live here or who are in touch with the local arts scene or the political scene or just go out to the bars” he says. “It’s also meant to give people who don’t live here a sense of Worcester that is fresh, humorous, new, and loving, even as it pokes fun at things. People will recognize issues that exist in their own town or their own city, for example, like the ‘Princeton Police’ song. I think you experience that somebody who lives in a city going out into the country and getting pulled over. I think that’s a pretty universal experience.”
He has humorous campaign songs about mayors Joe Petty, Joe O’Brien, and Konnie Lukes, Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray, as well as a couple of booster songs for losing campaigners.
In addition, Nat takes aim at local cultural spots like the Collective a Go Go and the Dark World Gallery, responds to a Worcester Magazine column by Chet Williamson about the difficulty of rhyming our fair city’s name, and laments the overwhelming goose crap found in Elm Park.
“The CD,” he says, “is made up of songs [that] probably go back to as early as 2005 and some as recently as 2012.” With as many fluent, sophisticated jazz styles as themes, it all adds up to a fun tour of Worcester, from a slightly deranged perspective.
“The song about Tim Murray [‘Hurry Hurry’], that was actually written for his first lieutenant governor campaign in 2006,” says Nat. “But the other three songs, ‘Konnie Lukes,’ ‘Joe O’Brien’ and ‘Joe Petty,’ there’s been a tradition where, whenever there’s a new mayor inaugurated, I show up with my ukulele and play an original song.”
“I’ve been a professional musician since 1976 when I was 21,” says Nat. Along the way, though, his music has had to play second fiddle to marriage, raising a family, and a job in health and human services. The CD release party on Jan. 31, he says, “is really kind of heralding for me a return to music…[and] sell[ing] CDs, find[ing] piano students, find[ing] paying gigs.” In addition, Nat hopes the exposure will help him “to put together a small ensemble.”
Despite a nasally, facetious voice and jazzy, American Songbook piano-style that will draw comparisons to Randy Newman, Nat says that he “didn’t really hear Randy Newman till my own style had long since been formed,” though he acknowledges that they “had similar influences, people like Fats Waller, Hoagy Carmichael, people who brought the whole idea to jazz that you didn’t have to have a beautiful Bing Crosby voice to sing it.”
“I think that Randy Newman was also influenced by a lot of those same folks – black and white – who took a more raspy or homey approach to their lyrics.” He insists emphatically, though, that he can sing properly. “I actually am able to sing in a Frank Sinatra-style,” he says, “but I don’t unless I’m accompanying somebody or the tune really calls for it.”
His style derived from a childhood in New York City, when his “friends were going to the Fillmore East and [were] into heavy acid rock.” Nat, meanwhile, “was getting tired of my classical training and I needed something to buffer me a little bit from the hyperpaced drugs and sex scene that went along with the music of that time, so I kind of got into Scott Joplin and Fats Waller and swing. Then, I got into stride piano, in general, and started listening to Oscar Peterson, to a lot of other people in New York and who would come to New York,” so that “by the time I was, I think, about 18 years old, I was already kind of into this vintage piano kind of stuff.”
For the CD release party at Nick’s, Nat hopes to start early, “which for Nick’s is 8,” he says, though he’ll “be around at 7 signing CDs.” Nat encourages everybody to come early and eat, and that “everything [on Nick’s menu] is great.” The first show will run until 9:30 or 10 p.m., he says, but that he’ll keep playing “for those who make Thursday part of their weekend,” and he has a number of surprises planned, one of which he shared under duress, was that he’s “going to let people choose themes for songs and possibly a style, if they want Latin or salsa or bossa nova or blues or Madonna, or whatever, and I will make up a song on the spot.”
“The songs are meant to be enjoyable in their own right,” he says, “but also to have a special twist and element of pleasure for people who live here and know Worcester.”
Come hear Nat’s Original Worcester Songbook in the intimate atmosphere of Nick’s, where Nat can let his formidable chops loose on their vintage upright on Thursday, Jan. 31. Admission is free. CDs will be available for purchase for $10. Nick’s Bar, 124 Millbury St. nicksworcester.com.
By Matt Robert
Originally appeared in the January 10, 2013, Worcester Magazine
Dust off your doublets, corsets and codpieces, it’s Traina Shakespeare Week at Clark University.
“I think this is our fourth go-around,” Clark theater professor Gino DiIorio says of the event, which features two public performances, Edmond Rostand’s 1897 biographical portrait, “Cyrano De Bergerac,” on Tuesday, Jan. 15, and William Shakespeare’s 1590’s comedy “The Taming of the Shrew,” on Wednesday, Jan. 16. Both shows begin at 7:30 p.m.
“We thought, the fact that we could get ‘Taming,’ which is a comedy — it’s lots of fun — and a play like ‘Cyrano,’ which you don’t see performed much anymore, that was really great,” says DiIorio.
“Fortunately we have the Traina Shakespeare Fund, an endowment set up by Dick and Polly Traina,” he says. “Dick was president of Clark University for a long time, and Dick and Polly were great friends of the arts, particularly the theater, but also music.” The fund, DiIorio says, “allows us to bring in a classical theater company, preferably Shakespeare, about every two or three years.” During the weeklong residence, the theater company may “give free performances to the Clark community” and “do shows for the University Park Campus School, so the seventh and eighth graders can come and see Shakespeare — all free of charge.”
Local residents benefit, too, according to DiIorio, as Clark offers the two public performances at a cut-rate ticket price of $10 (free to local college students with a valid I.D.).
The Aquila Theatre Company, which originated in London, but presently operates out of New York City, believes in “theatrical utilitarianism,” whose object is to bring theater to the largest possible audience.
“I think it’s for everybody,” says DiIorio. “We’ve brought in actors from the London stage in the past. They’ve been a great asset to Clark.” The benefit, as DiIorio sees it, extends beyond entertainment, and is fundamental to Clark’s educational goals, at both college, as well as high-school and middle-school levels.
To this end, DiIorio notes, “I would say that they are not traditionalists. They try to make this stuff very modern. They do a lot of theater for young audiences, so they are used to adjusting things, so it speaks to a more modern audience. But they also know the verse, too. Very often it’s modern dress and there’s a lot of technical things. We haven’t seen anyone ‘in the ruffles,’ as I would say, in a long time. We might see that with ‘Cyrano.’ We’ll see.”
“I’m pretty certain that ‘Taming’ is modern,” says DiIorio, “but modern in quotes. It’s not like they’re in their jeans.”
DiIorio estimates this to be the fourth Clark Shakespeare Week under the Traina endowment, during which “we’ve brought actors in from the London stage twice.” He says that, as part of the goal of reaching the kids at Clark as well as the University Park Campus School, a 7-12 grade Worcester school founded in 1997 as part of a larger partnership between Clark University and local community-development organizations to reverse the economic and social decline of the neighborhood, “one of these days I’d really like to bring in a [particular] predominantly black company that [performs] the Greeks, and I think that’s especially good, especially for the kids at a school like University Park Campus, because a lot of time they look at the classics and they think, ‘Well, that’s just something that white kids do,’ and nothing could be further from the truth. So, when they get to see actors of color performing the Greeks, performing Shakespeare, it opens up a world to them – they’re going to spark that, too, so that’s a good thing.”
“The Thursday [a.m.] performance is for the [University Park Campus] high school students.” And though the spring semester has not yet begun, in this case, “sometimes [during the residence] they have class visits… [for] Shakespeare instruction,” during which “they can talk about working with the bard, and iambic pentameter and working with the verse and all of that. Sometimes it’s just what is it like to be a working actor on tour,” he says.
“We might do a meet-and-greet with the young actors. It’s good for the young actors to be able to talk to college kids about to head out and this might be one of their first gigs doing something like this.”
“It’s a win-win. It’s a real great experience for us.”
by Matt Robert / Steven King photos
History is no laughing matter – it’s not all fun and games. Ask any high school history teacher (or student, for that matter).
Or is it?
A new exhibit at the Worcester Historical Museum is a tribute to the history of fun and games. Called Game On!, the collection on display in the Booth Gallery until March 30, 2013, and funded by a grant from the Worcester Arts Council explores a century and a half of toys, from paper dolls and blocks to video games and movie tie-ins.
“The whole point of the exhibit is for people to walk around and be like, “Oh, my goodness! I had those Hot Wheels! I had those toy soldiers! I remember playing Pac Man!” says Vanessa Bumpus, the museum’s exhibit coordinator and designer.
“It’s basically the story of toys and games,” she says. “We highlight some Worcester companies, like the Roy Toy Company and RalphCo, which were manufacturing toys here in Worcester. But then we talk about classic toys like blocks and Legos and rocking horses [that] we have…on loan from…different institutions,…people [and] private collections.”
“We talk about the three big board games manufacturers…Hasboro, Milton Bradley, and Parker Brothers,” says Bumpus. “Then, we have a section on paper dolls, and we have on loan to us the first paper dolls ever printed in America, and a doll called Sandy Gray,” whose unique quality, says Bumpus, is that “her head moves from body to body.”
“We have a Teddy Bear that was owned by [benefactor] Mary Gage Rice from Worcester – one of the original Teddy Bears. We’ve got blocks owned by people from Worcester.” Note cards and placards along the route of the exhibit, according to Bumpus, “talk about the history, too, of checkers, chess and dominoes, and…about Wild West toys – cowboys and Indians and things like that.” In addition, she says, they have toys inspired by television shows and other media, like Tickle Me Elmo, a Bat Mobile, some 007 James Bond villain action figures, a Harry Potter wand on loan from That’s Entertainment!, a Sally Field Flying Nun figurine, a ray gun and a Chewbacca from Star Wars.
From the Worcester Historical Museum’s collection, they have a Johnny Tremain figure made popular by the 1944 Newbery Medal-winning children’s novel “Johnny Tremain” about a young boy growing up in the time of the Revolutionary War written by Esther Forbes from Worcester, which was made into the 1957 Disney film of the same name, notes Bumpus. In addition, word puzzles and traditional puzzles from the museum’s collection will be on view, as well as lots of little toy soldiers, a secondedition Barbie doll, and Hot Wheels.
“The fun thing about the exhibit is that it’s actually set up like a board game,” Bumpus says. “So, as you go from section to section, you pull a card and it tells you where to go next. So there’s nothing chronological about the exhibit; it’s all by chance, as if you were playing a board game.” So drawing a card, she says, could send you to dominoes, or to the rocking horse, or to the play area to play Battleship or Old Maid. The self-guided tour, she says, will take no longer than 45 minutes, if you read every label and take the time to interact with the exhibit.
Bumpus adds that there are also more modern toys on exhibit such as a whole section on video games including old-style Game Boys.
“It’s really about just how toys are generational,” Bumpus says. “While these blocks are maybe from the 1800s, children today still play with blocks. It’s timeless. [And] Legos, while they may not have played with them in the 1920s, they may have played with them with their grandchildren in the ’60s. So, there’s that relation of generational activity.”
“Legos have become so advanced,” she says. “For example, the set we have in the exhibit is [more than] 1,000 pieces – a pirate ship from “Pirates of the Caribbean.” Legos have gone, almost, out of control. You see these sets sometimes, at Target, and in stores, with thousands and thousands of tiny little pieces, 300-page booklets of instructions. How big can these things get?” The response, Bumpus says, is the museum’s contest that encourages kids to use their imagination to recreate something like Worcester’s Union Station or City Hall out of Legos without instructions and using their own imaginations.
“We thought it would be kind of cool,” she says, adding that the contest would show that “you can do almost anything with those things.”
“The whole point of the exhibit is just for people to learn and have fun,” says Bumpus. “It’s not a bunch of dates and things like that. It’s really just about reminiscing and having a good time.”
“The main concept of this was that it isn’t really a memorial, it’s a celebration of music,” says Paul Dagnello, bassist with late local legend Scott Ricciuti’s longest running band, Huck, about the show Saturday night at Ralph’s that will bring together three of Ricciuti’s most enduring musical projects: Childhood, Huck, and Pistol Whipped. “The focus is on the music. The memorials were very visual for people. This is going to be the audio portion of that.”
Ricciuti’s untimely death in a car accident in April devastated a massive fan base that included among the most ardent fans a sizable core of local musicians, artists and club owners, and left a gaping hole in a scene in which Ricciuti played an outsized role, performing most nights of the week in one ensemble or another, or appearing solo. Numerous emotionally charged memorials were held – the most notable at Vincent’s – and a variety of tributes have occurred since, but none to this scale.
“We could have done a week’s worth of events,” says Dagnello. “He was involved in so many different things…[but we] kind of just whittled it down to those three bands.” The choice to feature Huck, Childhood and Pistol Whipped (and not Friday Farewells, A Pony for My Birthday, or Preacher Roe), Paul says, is that “those were probably the ones he was in the longest,” recalling that Childhood was together for about 10 years, and Huck for 17 or 18 years. Finally, Dagnello says, “It’s a good representation of his different types of songwriting, plus a decision just had to be made on what was possible to do for a night where it wouldn’t get too out of control.”
This event—sponsored by longtime Scott Ricciuti patron, Orcaphat Records owner, and executive producer of Huck and Pistol Whipped’s CDs, Colin Butler (“He was there in the studio with us every single day,” says Dagnello), and organized by Ricciuti’s friend and collaborator, Bee’s Knees (and Friday Farewells) guitarist Michael Thibodeau — faced several obstacles.
“I know, for me, and I think for Danny [Lucas, drummer with Childhood and Huck, and Ricciuti’s longest running collaborator], it’s the first time we’re going to play since…in a club or live. We all have a very hard time doing this, says Dagnello, further citing less obvious and more pragmatic difficulties, some of the material is simply hard to recreate.
“Childhood [is] kind of figuring out how to do Childhood with just the surviving members,” he says, “whereas Duncan [Arsenault], Jeff [Burch], and Scott were the core members of [Pistol Whipped]. And then with Huck [as with Pistol Whipped], we lost our lead singer, our guitar player and our front man, so I know it’s been difficult — beyond just the emotional — dealing with that: How do we actually play a show without a third of our band.”
“We were gonna need help,” he says.
“For this show,” Dagnello says, “Huck is going to have nine members. We have two guitar players playing the whole night, and then we have a couple people filling in vocal duties, and then I’m probably going to do a couple songs up on vocals.”
Additionally, the show will feature (including the numerous Huck extras) several special guests from Ricciuti’s rather large circle of peers, though organizers are loath to reveal them.
“In some ways we want it to be a surprise,” says Dagnello, “because we don’t want it to be part of the promotion for the event…because, as far as we’re concerned, on that night they’re in Huck…. The people that are involved are doing it because of their love for Scott and their love for his music, their friendship. As far as Huck is concerned, all those people are in the band that night, they’re part of the band that night.”
Recreating the original sounds, even with a roster of talented fill-ins, many of whom were familiar and even devoted to Ricciuti’s music, or intricately linked with its production, also proved a challenge.
“We kept everything as close as we could [to] Scott. He had a specific way of playing guitar; he had a specific way of singing and that’s hard to replicate, but the guys working on this are definitely trying their hardest to emulate that, because it’s part of our sound,” Dagnello explains. “Not having Scott there playing guitar, it’s not going to sound just like Huck. It’s going to sound close, but it’s still not going to sound like it.”
“[Ricciuti’s] vocal range, and the power behind it, was tough for people,” Dagnello says. “Danny and I and someone like Roger [Lavallee, who, as engineer at Tremolo Lounge Studios, produced most of Ricciuti’s career output] and somebody like Colin Butler, we’ve sat with these songs for hundreds of hours—recording, playing and everything. And it’s kind of like bringing these people into this world that they’re brand new to. So, they get to see more of Scott than the prior four got to see.”
Lastly, players had to grapple with a notebook of deeply personal lyrics whose genesis was the intimate bonds forged over decades of intensive, and mostly glamourless, work and play in clubs, rehearsal rooms, vans, studios – friendship, love, loss, mistakes, and hopes.
Dagnello notes the particular challenge faced by those who “are going to have to sing the songs. I think the hardest part was all of us all having to sit down and read all of these lyrics….To actually sit back and take these groups of songs, read the lyric and tell the story of the lyric definitely hit a lot of us…as pretty tough. Scott was definitely a magic worker with words. So, that was a real tough part with everybody.”
Even the venue has significance, though, this choice, too, proved hard, as Ricciuti, over the years, could have had his number retired in just about every music room in central Massachusetts. Organizers ultimately chose Ralph’s, though, because, as Dagnello says, “as far as Huck…and Childhood…was concerned, Ralph’s was one of our homes. I think [Huck] played Ralph’s more than any other club. There’s a connection with Vincent [Hemmeter, owner of Ralph’s, Vincent’s, and Nick’s]. He was good friends with Scott. Erick [Godin, owner] from the Lucky Dog was good friends with Scott [too].”
The $10 event will feature Pistol Whipped at 9:30 p.m., Childhood at 10:30 p.m., and Huck at 11:30 p.m., as well as a rolling soundtrack between sets of Ricciuti’s prodigious recorded output.
“We’re going to be playing all of the other stuff that Scott has been included on, like the Pony for My Birthday stuff and the Preacher Roe stuff…Huck songs we’re not playing that night, Childhood songs…and possibly unreleased Pistol Whipped material.”
While no CDs will be made available at the event, those wishing to purchase Ricciuti’s music can visit “Scott’s website where they can go song by song and pick and buy whatever they like,” says Paul. “Everything is online.” Scottricciuti.com.
Catch the celebration of Scott Ricciuti music on Saturday, Dec. 29 at Ralph’s Diner, 148 Grove St. at 8 p.m. Tickets $10.
“We’re just going to celebrate on that day,” he says of the milestone that falls this Sunday on Christmas Eve Eve. The show, featuring local electric blues act Big Eyed Rabbit, begins at 7 p.m. “Jon [Short – solo bluesman and front man for Big Eyed Rabbit] plays every Sunday, so it’s kind of cool to have Jon’s band play there. We’ll have some special things going on. We’ll have some giveaways. We’ll have some food.”
The neighborhood bar, tucked up on Grafton Hill past the CSX rail yard on Suffolk Street, enjoys a quiet popularity with a certain offbeat, musically inclined crowd – many of the same who patronize Hemmeter’s other bars, Ralph’s Diner and Nick’s. They like homegrown music and Hemmeter has given it to them.
“I pretty much stuck to what I liked,” he says. Over 15 years, in fact, Vincent’s has cultivated an excellent reputation for live music. The current schedule has delta blues with Jon Short on Sunday nights, where he’s been in residence for over 11 years; Zack Slick, playing old-timey and folk on Wednesdays; and crooner Cara Brindisi with the Feather Merchants on Thursdays; plus a rotating slate of talent from around the state on Fridays and Saturdays, except on the second Saturday of each month, when The RoadKill Orchestra appears.
A high-quality stable has been the hallmark at Vincent’s since the beginning. “Dennis Brennan used to play every Wednesday with Duke Levine and Kevin Barry,” says Hemmeter, “and Troy Gonyea played every Thursday. [Michael Thibodeau, John Donovan, and Scott Ricciuti] played every Tuesday. Night Train – Jeff Berg and Troy. Yeah, I was lucky to have a lot of good music.”
Fittingly “the first person that played was Scott Ricciuti,” says Hemmeter. “We were close friends. Since the place is so small, I said, ‘You’re going to play acoustic,’ and he said, ‘Yeah, yeah, I’m playing acoustic.’ So, acoustic, to me, meant you sit down in the corner with an acoustic guitar and it’s not amplified. Well, he came in with his amp and all this stuff, and we had a big laugh about it.”
Though it’s hard to think of Hemmeter today as anything but a bar owner – THE bar owner – in Worcester, his journey has been long. “When I started working at Ralph’s [in 1986] I didn’t even drink,” he says. “I never worked in a bar before, I didn’t bartend, so I pretty much learned everything [from Ralph Moberly]. I learned a lot from Carol [Moberly], too. I ended up taking over the booking there, and I pretty much did all the hiring and fi ring and took care of all the money.”
“I learned right away that I enjoyed doing that,” he says. “I like old bars. So, I just traveled around and took ideas from a lot of other bars and made a place that I would want to hang around at, the same way Ralph did.”
“I thought that [it] was a nice little bar and it had a lot of potential. It was in rough shape and it needed to have a big facelift. It had a dropped ceiling and paneling, and it didn’t have a back bar. I had just closed on [the building], and I had a lot of renovations to do, so we were working pretty much around the clock. I had a lot of help from a lot of my friends.”
“I had bought a back bar from Ralph’s years before – the bar that was in Bowlers [the short-lived, cavernous club co-owned by Ralph’s and the original owners of the Dive Bar]. Ralph had bought that out of an old hotel in Connecticut that was probably from the ’40s.”
“The bar that you sit at…was brick. I bought this paneled room out of a mansion off south Main Street – a beautiful oak-paneled room from the 1800s. So, I covered over the brick, and did over the top of the bar [with the infamous lacquer-coated pulp-fiction paperback covers]. But the back bar, all it had were a couple of shelves, a bunch of knickknacks and a few bottles.”
“[The walls were] all covered up with some paneling. I ended up buying a whole room of tongue and groove from the guy that was the postman for that area, right around the corner on Norfolk Street. So, I had to go into his place and take it all down.”
But he did it, and opening day was December 23, 1997. “We were working around the clock just to try to get it open, because David Clark, the company across the street, would always shut down [for the holiday] and they would have their employees go over to that bar…and they wanted to still do that. So that was my rationale for working hard to get it open as fast as I could.”
Weekends, he says, were “pretty busy right away,” though “it took a while to get the weeknights busier. “I worked at Ralph’s and Ralph’s was a really popular bar…so I had a pretty strong clientele of regulars who came to see me at Ralph’s. I had the opportunity that they’d at least come down and see me once to look at the place and try it out, and, if they liked it, they’d come back hopefully. Lucky for me, they did.”
Hemmeter’s winning formula, evident at all three of his bars, is to know (and be a part of) your crowd, to know your way around a bar, and to know music and understand and respect musicians, all things Vincent’s does well. Because of this, musicians want to play there. Stu Esty, whose RoadKill Orchestra plays monthly at Vincent’s, says, “There are always great folks on both sides of the bar, an amazing menu, [and] a fourseason smoking lounge. All this and a photo booth combined with bizarre taxidermy? What’s not to like?”
Longtime bartender and Vincent’s fixture, Frank Inangelo, who says that he “started working there about five months after they opened,” says that “it started as a couple of shifts bar backing, and 10 years later I’m bartending five nights a week and booking some of the area’s most talented performers.” Frank says that he loves “the diversity of the crowd” and that “it’s like a company that runs three shifts: you have the afternoon crowd; then, around 4 p.m., the after-work crowd comes in; and, finally, around 9 p.m. the night shift is ready to have fun.”
Though Frank expresses great regard for all of Vincent’s live acts, he remembers most fondly “Dennis Brennan playing Wednesday nights about 10 years ago with Duke Levine, Bill MacGillivray and Kevin Barry. It would be jam-packed just to hear those great tunes and amazing players” and “the great nights with Scott Ricciuti, whether it was with Huck or his weekly Tuesday gig with Michael and John, or Pistol Whipped.” Of the current crop, he notes the Feather Merchants on Thursday, which he says “are the latest to impress me every week. Cara, Mike, Chelsea and Chris have been able strike a balance of great musicianship with broad appeal.”
Way back when, bartending at Ralph’s, Hemmeter was saving his money and “looking for the right place.” Thankfully for us, he seems to have found it.
Stop by Sunday night to continue the tradition of great music in a warm environment and to congratulate Vincent Hemmeter.
Vincent’s, 49 Suffolk St., Worcester.
And there’s a trailer park at Nick’s.
“It’s definitely a departure from the general look of Nick’s,” laughs Nicole Watson as Vincent Hemmeter toils away behind her building—a replica mobile home on the Nick’s stage, usually a demure, warmly lit home for area performers of cabaret jazz, American standards, and assorted other roots music and curiosities. The temporary remodel, which might surprise Nick’s regulars, includes “lots of plastic light-up decorations and things you would never normally see on the Nick’s stage.”
The set will provide the backdrop for Nick’s Very Merry Camped-up Christmas Show, at 9 p.m., on Thursday night, December 13, at Nick’s Bar and Restaurant, 124 Millbury Street in Worcester.
The event, what Watson calls “sort of a John Waters Christmas,” is a holiday revue done Nick’s style. “We just want it really campy and really cheesy, kind of cheap,” she says. “It’ll be a lot of fun.” Besides campy mayhem, the show will feature the usual roster of high quality talent Nick’s is known for. Watson says there will be “countless performers,” including the likes of Clayton Willoughby, Geoffrey Watson-Oehling, Aimee Kewley, Jen Antkowiak, Joan Cleary, Michael Gondeck, Monica Hamilton and Patrice Peris, along with musical directors, singers Lisa Hall and pianist Tom LaMark interspersed with short comedy sets by Shaun Connolly. Watson herself has “a few songs [she’ll] perform with Tom LaMark,” as well.
“We have an overly ambitious schedule for this,” she says of the event, which is more than just an ambitious send-up of Christmas cheer. “We also have a Santa who will be visiting – people can have their pictures taken. He’s a little irreverent. Santa will be handing out some gifts, as well.”
But that’s not all, folks! “There’s going to be some trivia, and we have prizes for the trivia,” she adds.
Prior to the party, Nick’s fixture Cocktail Bob will host a 7 p.m. presentation of a flaming punch, cherished by Charles Dickens and famous during the Victorian era.
“Cocktail Bob has done a couple different presentations for us. What he’s doing right now is a flaming Dickens punch to celebrate the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens,” says Watson. “He’s going to do a little demonstration, give the history of it, talk about Dickens for a few minutes and then have a tasting. It’s a 200-year-old – or even older – recipe for Dickens’ favorite punch. That’ll be what the sampling is.”
Once revelers get a little of this in the belly for warmth, “that leads to caroling, which will be at 8 o’clock” on the Nick’s patio.
“I’ve got some singers that I know that are going to get things started,” says Watson. “We’re going to give free cocoa and cookies to carolers out there and that’ll be probably about 45 minutes long. And that’s free to the public. Children could be involved in that, unlike the punch thing and the naughty Christmas show.”
“9 p.m. is when the Camped-up Christmas Show begins,” she says.
“Lisa will be the host” and “she’s performing,” as well, says Watson. The cabaret singer, she says, “sings on a fairly regular basis at Nick’s,” is “sort of a Nick’s favorite and…has a lot of charisma.”
“So, I went to her and asked her if she was interested in sort of organizing the performers and being the host.” The result, says Watson, is that “she’s been doing a lot of the hard work, getting the musical acts together, while I sit around wrapping the presents.”
This year’s event is a first, Watson says, though it has its roots in last year’s Christmas celebration. “Last year when we had a Christmas show, it was just remarkable to me how many people wanted to be involved and sing along. We had a variety show that was similar last year, but not to this epic proportion.”
“I was really encouraged by it, because I wasn’t really sure how well a holiday show would go over,” she says. “You know, during the holiday season people can get kind of burned out, but people seemed to really enjoy it. I think the laid-back, campy theme will be pretty hilarious. I can say this honestly as we’re building a trailer that’s going to live onstage right now.”
According to Watson, they’ve been working on the show for a couple of months. “We’ve been meeting pretty much every week, discussing ideas, what the set lists are, what the songs are.”
And what exactly can we expect to hear at a Nick’s Christmas show? “Anything from ‘Santa Baby’ to ‘Jingle Bell Rock’ to pretty much everything in between,” says Watson. “One of the performers is going to be doing ‘You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.’ Clayton Willoughby has a fantastic set of Hawaiian Christmas songs that he’ll be doing.”
“I think a lot of them will be pretty familiar, but there will be some interesting stuff thrown in there as well,” she says. “For example, the Hawaiian songs and some other stuff out of the American songbook – more winter songs are being performed as well,” Watson says, to assure that it won’t, as she says, “necessarily all [be] Christmas songs,” adding, “we’re not [going to] drive everyone crazy with a constant barrage of Christmas music.”
“It’s definitely more of a party atmosphere. It’s not scripted. Obviously the musical numbers are all worked out, but people can sing along.”
“We’re looking forward to it,” says Watson. “Tom LaMark is such a great pianist, and some of the silly and more suggestive numbers – it definitely won’t be like a walk in the mall.”
It takes some serious balls to call your band The Balls, but, then again, The Balls have lots of balls! They’ve been a sensation since their first gigs over a decade ago, and though the band has left and come back, changed their sound and personnel, they still deliver the most outrageous show in town, and, perhaps, just about anywhere. (Bassist Wayno calls it “controlled sexual stage chaos.”)
Frontman (to call him “singer” really doesn’t capture it) Andrei “The General” Krutov is a force – sort of G.G. Allin meets Jerry Lee Lewis meets an atomic bomb – bringing punk to new highs and lows. He delights in brutal, puerile, sexually charged punk, inciting and interacting physically with the crowd as the band (Jon Ho [Jon Wensky], drums; Wayno [Wayne Winslow], guitar; and Johnny Ace [Brian Hoffman], bass) lay down double-barrel garage rock – fast, tight, and straight, on unapologetic ditties, like their legendary “Shiny Nipple,” “Razor Burn,” and “Sucky Laundromat.” If Pussy Riot got thrown in prison for their music, I suspect a much harsher fate would await The Balls in the Gulag.
“Fan participation is key,” says Wayno, “and our fans are as motley as it comes. Most of all, our passion for playing music shows when we play.”
This weekend, though, The Balls hope to show their softer side – the softer side of their balls, if you will – in a special, intimate acoustic show at Vincent’s that they will dedicate to their late local music compadre, Scott Ricciuti, who passed away in the spring of 2012 in a car accident. (See “Scott Ricciuti 1963 – 2012,” in the April 11, 2012 issue.)
Wayno says that the band is “going more Johnny Cash/rockabilly for this show,” and promises that “The General will be telling stories of his Russian youth and rather perverted times of his life, as well.” These stories, according to a Facebook post, include adventures in “motel hot-tub sex” and “doing it in a walk-in freezer” and other legendary exploits that got Krutov in great trouble during his school days in Soviet-era Russia, such as performing an English version of “Smoke on the Water.”
The dedication to Scott, Wayno says, is because “we miss him dearly. He always treated us like the rock star we knew he was.” The Balls fought in the same musical trenches night after night that Scott knew better than anyone, having spent the better part of his life working area clubs. And though the two acts may seem to have been fighting for different armies, Scott’s high energy, punk-sweat live persona has much in common with Krutov’s. “It went deeper than just the drunken ‘I love you, man’ at the end of the night,” Wayno says. “He knew the scene needed contrast and always found a compliment for you.”
Though Wayno hasn’t been in The Balls that long, he has “been playing in this scene for 25-plus years,” he says, and has “jumped up with [Scott’s longtime band] Huck a few times.”
Friday’s Vincent’s show will not be a tribute. Longtime band member Brian Hoffman says that the plan is not to cover Scott’s songs, but rather simply to play a show with him in mind, including mutual friends from the scene, such as Deb Beaudry from Group Action, who Wayno says “will be doing a few covers with us,” and, according to Brian, Scott’s close friend Michael Thibodeau, who “will sit in on mandolin.”
The volume will be lower, but Balls fans shouldn’t be worried. Despite the venue, Wayno assures us that they “play the same now as when we we’re in our twenties.”
“The General,” he says, “is a legend and can hump any crowd into submission. Even if you don’t like the music, you leave entertained.”
Catch The Balls when they play their acoustic set at Vincent’s, 49 Suffolk Street, Worcester on Friday Nov. 9 at 8 p.m.
Patrick Sullivan and Mike Hendrickson are newer entrants into this growing Worcester milieu. Together they run the Worcester Photo Studios, a solid, grassroots business plan that embraces an elaborate nexus of local groups of various political, social and artistic endeavors.
Housed in an inauspicious former factory at 90 May St., the Worcester Photo Studios is neither E.B. Luce nor Fotomat. What they’ve built is a comprehensive go-to for all things photographic.
Are you a photographer, or a model in need of a portfolio or some experience? Come on in! Are you a photographer looking to build a roster of models? Come on in! Are you in a band that needs promo shots? Come on in! A hair stylist or makeup designer looking to get into weddings or model shoots? Come on in! Want to learn the ABC’s of photography in a classroom setting?
Well, you get the idea.
“The original point,” says Sullivan, was after graduating from Assabet Valley Technical School in Marlborough about a decade ago, he and Hendrickson wanted to couple their photography talents and descend upon the wedding market. To do so, they needed a studio, but studio space is expensive.
One thing led to another, explains Sullivan, and “it worked out that it made sense to get a bigger place with members to help delineate the costs between everybody.” In June 2011, they moved into the location that they’re in now—“the biggest photo studio in New England—and got a lot of members to be a part of it.”
“Ten-thousand square feet of fun; we can’t fi nd anyone bigger on the eastern seaboard,” says Hendrickson,” noting that the studio rosters approximately 300 photographers with specializations that cover the gamut of shooting needs from product shooting to modeling to live events, like concerts and weddings, indoor and outdoor, micro and macro… .
Well, you get the idea.
“Originally,” Sullivan says, Worcester Photo Studios was “just a place to share space,” but it “has now become sort of the focal point for photography for the whole area.”
The studio consists of, among other things, a series of “product shooting rooms and a darkroom,” adds Hendrickson, who says that they’re “also going to be building a cyclorama,” a popular type of shooting area where “the wall meets the floor in a nice slow curve, so it looks like a permanent backdrop” with no shadows demarking the wall-floor junction.
For a monthly charge plus a one-time fee, photographers can join the studio, which provides access to the facilities, which include rooms, each constructed to create a unique vibe, as well as things like lighting gear, background screens, and computers for digital-film processing.
More than that—they point out—models, photographers and stylists get to take part in the quarterly event, The Great Model Shoot, which Sullivan says is for those who have never modeled before but want to try it out and for photographers who are nervous about working with models or who have worked with models before but find it hard to arrange their own shoots, and stylists who want to get behind-the-scenes experience doing hair and makeup for photo shoot models.”
For $20, models can work with up to 60 or 70 photographers and leave with photos from each one.
“It’s a great stepping stone for everyone,” says Hendrickson. “We’ve had girls go on to get some great modeling contracts. One of them is even in Tokyo right now.”
“We actually have three girls who have ended up going on to great modeling careers after they never did modeling in their life until they came to one of our events,” adds Sullivan.
And for $40, photographers get to develop skills, meet models and stylists, and generate work, all in a laid-back atmosphere, where, unlike similar shoots that Hendrickson and Sullivan once attended, you can touch the equipment, shoot at your desired settings, and, essentially eschew the assembly-line method favored by other studios. Best of all, you can meet and talk the craft with photographers from all over.
“There are people who come and don’t ever take pictures. They want to see what’s going on. They say, ‘Oh, Hey! How did you do that?’” says Sullivan.
Photographers, Hendrickson says, can be found trading lenses and sharing cameras.
According to Sullivan, this way of conducting business has made the studio a destination for models and photographers, many of whom arrive from places like Maine, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire; likewise the events have become very popular with hair and makeup artists. “We have five girls that drive from Biddeford, Maine, every month,” says Sullivan.
Hendrickson says the building is also available for rental for use as an art gallery or for events like “yoga demonstrations or even a book club.” VegWorcester and the Free School are two nonprofits that have made use of the space recently, they say.
“We’re interested in art, community-type things,” says Sullivan. “We’re not trying to use it as a giant profit center and stick anybody in it for anything. We want to keep it somewhat oriented to sort of what we do.”
By extension, the Worcester Photo Studio takes part in the global initiative called Help Portrait, which “helps less fortunate people acquire a Christmas/ holiday portrait.” The ambitious project, which will take place on Saturday, Dec. 8 at the South High School gym, provides a series of booths equipped with photographers and a staff of stylists, whereby – for no cost – an individual, couple, or family can show up, have a portrait taken, and “walk out with a print in your hand, in a paper frame, and the digital file,” according to Sullivan.
Like the laid-back approach to their own studio, Hendrickson says they feel that the Help Portrait session “shouldn’t be a scary experience for anyone. It should be nice and easy.” To this end, he says, “We’ll have someone walking you through it.”
Cirque, which holds its fifth annual event this Sunday, Oct. 28, is emblematic of the community-meets-entrepreneurial spirit that permeates Worcester’s local culture and commerce scene.
To wit, enthusiastic local singer and model Helen Sheldon Beaumont (Farmers Union Players, Worcester Arts Council) offers a pre-Cirque hair and makeup workshop (1 to 4 p.m.) at local vintage mogul Amy Lynn Chase’s Crompton Collective on Green Street (a group shop specializing in antiques and collectibles), where, once finished, you can opt for a photo shoot. You can also get specialized flower arrangements courtesy of Cathy Walsh at Sprout florist on Chandler Street. Then, after trucking over to Winter Street to Bocado Tapas Bar, you can get your freak on from 7 to 11 p.m.
May, who says the event is inspired by the strange masquerade of Cirque du Soleil, is the natural evolution of her own Halloween parties. “Cirque du Noir began whirling around my head when my Halloween party outgrew my home,” she says. “I put ideas out to my friends for their opinions.” May is a longtime devotee of Worcester’s music and arts scene, and works in a creative field herself, so, finding creative ideas was not a problem. She says that she wanted “a night unlike any other in town—all black attire; elegant, on the formal side; a masquerade; edgy and sophisticated to inspire and motivate.” Additionally, she says, she wanted “to form an alliance between two social worlds and celebrate all that, while giving back to the community.”
“The live-art fusion is probably the most captivating event of the evening,” says May. “A select group of artists begin on one piece [of art] and, after a time, they switch to the neighboring artist’s piece, continuing the work. Every minute of it is captivating and such an intimate view into the process of art.”
“So many people don’t get out to art events or live music in Worcester,” May says. “I wanted to create an event that featured this talent and drew people who would not normally take part in a gallery show or a night out at the local music venue.”
“The purpose,” she says, “is simply to discover something new. The crowd is diverse, and the people-watching is an event in itself.” It is also, she says, “a reason to put on a little black dress or a suit and head out for a special evening.”
“When I saw that I could actually execute the plan,” she says of the first event five years ago, “I had only four weeks [to organize it].” The gambit paid off, though. “It was amazing as the doors opened, the band started playing and the night took off! That was five years ago.”
“Bocado,” she says, “is a perfect space for the event. The lighting, the room, touches of red…and the food!” Bocado has been more than a venue out for hire, though. May says that “Niche [Hospitality Group] has been behind Cirque du Noir since day one” and that “they have been our biggest supporter and sponsor.”
And if all that isn’t good enough, the event has raised $9,000 for the Worcester County Food Bank in its five years. “So many [artists, musicians, etc. are] willing to donate,” she says. “I am proud to be a catalyst.”
Whatever attracts you to the event, “show up in black and prepare to experience something new…and to meet people,” says May. “The creativity abounds!”
Attend Cirque du Noir this Sunday Oct. 28 from 7-11 p.m. at Bocado Tapas Wine Bar & Restaurant, 82 Winter St. Tickets $20. cirquedunoir.org.
But don’t put on your “Bazinga!” shirt yet.
The No Friends Tour, coming on Thursday, Sept. 6, to local geek mecca, That’s Entertainment on Park Avenue, will be more than a roomful of acne-faced teens playing Magic: The Gathering, or Klingon Boggle. The show will bring together some of the top names in nerdcore from around the country (and beyond) for a first-rate show – though, yes, one featuring a peculiar (and maybe geeky) strain of rap.
The self-deprecating sobriquet attached to the music these guys perform is geeky the way The Beastie Boys made hip-hop geeky or the way Talking Heads made punk geeky. That is, it is smart, it is hip, it is tense and intense. Mostly, however, it is rap that replaces the stuff of inner-city grit, poverty and gang life with middle-class concerns and traditional break-beat material with less typical sounds— hoedown fiddles, for example, and dialogue snippets from the TV series Firefly.
Its edge stems from its lack of commercial viability, its rejection of vapid, club-type mainstream rap. Because it throws open the parameters of acceptable topics and sounds, and because its artists have not yet been exploited by commercial acceptance, it has a freshness and excitement.
Jesse Dangerously, from Halifax, Nova Scotia, perhaps the best known artist on the bill, prefers the term “alternative hip-hop,” and says that his association with the term nerdcore is due to his stage clothes, which include “glasses and [a] penchant for neckties.”
And what is a nerd, but the antithesis of cool, a person who openly expresses an ardent interest in things without affectation? These artists tend not to posture in apathy like their rap counterparts. Adam Warrock, for instance, whose self-produced raps have been critically acclaimed by major publications across the globe, and who has performed at the SxSW Festival, in Austin, Texas, loves comic books and the NBC series “Parks and Recreation.” And that’s what he raps about. The attorney turned independent artist has a fun and upbeat EP devoted to the show, built on beats from current artists, like John Legend and Lil’ Wayne.
Does this sound nerdy?
Okay, so it is a little nerdy. Mikal KHill’s website, for example, opens as a fully operational Windows 95 desktop, with the content available in folders and Notepad windows, which offer a deep look into KHill’s mind via endless deep dispatches on the world around him, as well as up-to-the-minute news, and a string of sound clips. And geeky though it may be, it’s not the polite stuff of a grade-school brown-noser. KHill’s raps are profanity laced and edgy, and though he makes no bones about his nerdiness (his Facebook page cites him, first, as a rapper, and, second, as a Nintendo player), I suspect his physics teacher would blush at a few of these tunes. One tune, based on colleague Jesse Dangerously’s “Aww Shucks,” called “Awwwwwwwww Fuck,” takes a ’60s cop-show soundtrack (think Austin Powers) and delivers a slick, angry rap akin to late ’80s Digital Underground.
The community between these guys is one of the most compelling aspects of their scene. They routinely reuse the material of their friends and build new tunes by deconstructing the beats and altering the themes. Jesse Dangerously’s beat, “Pauly Shore,” for instance, takes Tribe One and Adam Warrock’s “Battle (Finale)” and turns it into a speed-rap lambasting of the MTV star, with scatological references that hit faster than your brain can grasp them.
The star-studded bill hits about 30 cities throughout the Midwest, New England, and down the east coast, and the local stop includes area artists Shane Hall and Danny Fantom, both who have made their mark on local music.
No Friends Tour on Thursday Sept. 6 at 7 p.m. at That’s Entertainment, 244 Park Ave., Worcester.
In “Sounds the Same,” from their new independent release, Good Times Ne’er Forgot, Hey Now, Morris Fader asks if the muse is gone away for good. This dire existential dilemma hits like a mid-life crisis, signaling the maturing of the group and its members. Good Times Ne’er Forgot is the result of growing up, facing life’s growing complications, and, sonically, it stems from recent outside musical pursuits of the band members. Brooks, for example, has become a mainstay on the local scene, providing his virtuoso chops to a variety of lineups based out of Green Street’s Dive Bar, and Pez plays with uber-pop locals, The Luxury.
The good news is, as this record testifies, the muse isn’t gone, at least not for this band. The record teems with ideas steeped in pop, with Brooks Milgate’s piano playing – as the lead instrument – defining the band’s sound, while his potent arsenal of blues and jazz chops have infused HNMF’s music with some historic presence, and elevated its appeal much the way superlative playing elevates the pop of Ben Folds or Phish.
The new tunes present the usual topics –social and relationship critiques – but often from less obvious vantage points, and with subtle suggestions of broader meanings. “Sounds the Same” finds the singer questioning his own creative sense (“Is anybody with me in thinking that the muse is gone away for good? It all sounds the same”) while seeming to call the state of all current music into question. Similarly, hidden beneath the bright, up-tempo, RnB/jazz-style piano hammering and blaring trumpet of “Not for You Anymore,” the band delivers the artist’s manifesto to create for the self rather than pandering to audiences. (“It’s not for you anymore, and it never will be again. “I won’t write your song and I won’t sing along.”). Or, perhaps it’s all just directed at a former lover.
Most of the songs presented on Good Times Ne’er Forgot are pop, and move in unpredictable ways that are hard to pin to one genre or another. Some, though, incorporate well used tropes to positive effect, like “Suits,” a condemnation of phonies (“A crooked smile, insincere and smug, you’ve got all new scams to pull”) with its Ray Charles-like Rhodes riff and bluesy right-hand trills (as well as a great Rhodes solo and a barrelhouse piano bridge); and “Two Weeks Notice,” a five-minute soul/blues revue that would be right at home on Joe Cocker’s Leon Russell-led Mad Dogs and Englishmen, borrowing chord changes from Ray Charles hits, like “A Song for You” and “Let’s Go Get Stoned.” The tune is big and bluesy, with tasteful lead guitar and a scorching solo courtesy of Troy Gonyea (The Howl, Booker T. and the MG’s), who also delivers some sweet slide guitar work ala Derek Trucks on the opening track, “The Blues and Alcohol.”
The work hangs together and makes good use of musical friendships developed by the band members. In addition to Troy Gonyea’s fine guitar work throughout the record, track four (“Gone for Good”) features strings by Boston guitar ace Ian Kennedy (Reverse, Groovasaurus), and track five (“Cop Show”) features Dana Colley (Morphine, Twinemen, Hi-n-Dry studios) on saxophone.
Overall, the record stays true to the band’s belief in having a good time. So, while the themes can be bleak, critical, and sometimes anxious, the mood is carried by the arrangements and production, which are driving, up-tempo, and slick, making the overriding vibe light and fun.
Hey Now, Morris Fader, comprised originally of drummer Alex Sacco and keyboardist Brooks Milgate, stormed this scene late last decade, playing an ironic, bombastic pop that bore inevitable comparisons to early Ben Folds Five (in no small part due to Brook’s piano chops, though the band cites the band as an influence, too). HNMF was immediately embraced by the scene, and won best new pop act in Worcester Magazine’s 2009 Reader’s Poll.
Hey Now, Morris Fader 2012 – Brooks Milgate (keyboard), Alex Sacco (drums), and Justin “Pez” Day (bass) – has a new CD, Good Times Ne’er Forgot, and will celebrate with a party at Ralph’s on Saturday, Sept. 8 at 8 p.m., featuring Boston band Lights Out; local power pop icons Thinner; Jon Short, Duncan Arsenault, and Jeff Burch electric blues trio, Big-Eyed Rabbit; and New Pilot.
“Basically [it’s] just a big party, and we hope everybody comes out,” says Brooks of the event. “Our objective is just a party celebration, so you can expect a good time.”
A good time is what the record provides, though the process wasn’t always easy. “We started making this record about a year and a half ago,” says Brooks, of Good Times Ne’er Forgot, which was tracked at a number of studios, including Wooly Mammoth, New Alliance, Hi-n-Dry, and Tremolo Lounge, and, according to their website, mastered three times.
The album, he says, evolved out of “a bunch of songs that we just started writing in practice” as a collaborative method, though, sometimes, he or Alex would “bring in a completed song.” More often, though, Brooks says, “I’ve got a verse and a chorus and I show it to those guys and we kind of piece it together, and there’s probably one or two that were completely written in the studio.”
“The second to last song on the record,” he relates, laughing, “we legitimately didn’t even have finished. We had the time booked at the studio, but we finished it right before we recorded it, which was pretty exciting.” Time and money both influenced the making of the record. “Over the next year or so we just kind of – as we had the money to do it, we would try to add a little bit more.”
As recording progressed and the band moved from studio to studio and engineer to engineer, a vision began to emerge. They liked the songs and the progress, and “started hearing horn parts and string parts,” Brooks says, and the band “felt like [they] needed to make a bigger production of the record.”
Additionally, HNMF wrestled with a philosophical debate familiar to any musician or music fan. “Our last record,” he says, “we were very in the mindset, ‘We don’t want to record anything we can’t do live.’ But the record, we felt, this time around, needed to be something a little more special.”
Now that the recording is done, the packaging has been designed, and the CDs have been duplicated, Brooks is enjoying the result and looks back with fondness. “We just got our CDs in the other day. I’ve never done a record that was that big of a production,” he says. “It’s a great feeling when you hear it back and it’s that huge.”
The band has high ambitions for the record and has hired Powderfi nger Promotions in Framingham to manage them. “We’re doing two campaigns,” Brooks says. “The first is just to get it reviewed in different magazines and blogs, and after we release the record, next month we’re going to do a six-week [campaign] targeting college radio, and see if anything sticks to the wall.”
“We’re not really expecting anything,” he laughs. “We’re hoping it helps us get the word out, but we’re not really hoping to become millionaires.”
Photos by Steven King
Music stores, production companies and recording studios are the adjuncts to the music scene—third-party offshoots that evolve to seize upon the marketable talent of, and/or provide the tools for, the artists who work in the given area. At one time, American bands sought out the major label hubs, originally New York and Chicago, and then Los Angeles, where they could record in fully outfitted studios complete with acoustically tuned rooms, large plate reverbs, isolated control rooms, German-made large diaphragm microphones, and horn-rimmed engineers operating bulky, state-of- the-art mixing consoles. Of course, even then, independent studios existed, making critical contributions to recording arts, and capturing regional sounds that might have gone overlooked by the major labels. The centralization problem was, though, the considerable financial outlay required to design and build appropriate spaces and equip them with the necessary gear.
Of course, technology has, as with many other fields, made the gear ever more available to the consumer, bringing the essential studio outfitting budget from the millions to the hundreds of thousands to the tens of thousands. Today, for as little as about $200, an enthusiast can purchase a digital recorder with built-in condenser mics, and software that allows for multi-track recording, and even digital effects, on which she can make her own “Sgt. Pepper’s” album. In fact, there’s an app for that: you can multi-track today on your iPhone!
However, while consumer technology is often advertized as the panacea, the promethean provider of the power of the gods (or at least Rick Rubin or George Martin, in this case), the studios – both major league and minor league – remain open, and even seem to be multiplying in certain vibrant musical markets.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Worcester doesn’t have any high profile, major label- aligned studios. In fact, it has few prominent, full-time studios, unlike Boston. The reasons are many. Not only is the scene significantly smaller, but artists can easily record nearby in Boston, Providence, or even New York. This opportunity is fueled, too, by a perception that big-city studios will offer better results. Studio owners also point to changes in the recording arts industry that have led to considerably downsized budgets for recording and band development, even among national and international acts.
There’s no record-shaped building, or neon-lit recording studio in downtown Worcester. Like most everything else today, especially in this town, you’ve got to use your nose and snoop around a bit. Even then, it can be a bit difficult to find decent recording space.
At the top of the local scene there are essentially two studios: Tremolo Lounge, in West Boylston where for close to two decades Roger Lavallee has manned the helm, engineering and producing the lion’s share of local recordings (or, at least, more than anybody else); and Fontanez Recording and Rehearsal Studio, which opened in downtown Worcester last year, where Alejandro Fontanez has grown an impressive resume of urban artists, including a mixing session for Wyclef Jean.
Beneath them, the drop is steep down to part-time studios and project studios, where bands or artists record themselves and their friends. The phone book lists perhaps a half dozen operations in Worcester and surrounding towns, though even this scant listing is optimistic and a bit deceiving. Many of the listed numbers are nothing more than home numbers to a kitchen phone whose owner has learned not to anticipate any calls from customers.
The market for good studios in Worcester is thin.
The less suspected reason for the scant listings is the nature of recording studios, which, with the exception of the aforementioned major-label variety, can be – for lack of a better term – sort of mom-and-pop outfits, run by—who else?— musicians, who, according to their nature, eschew slick, established business norms and often operate by word of mouth.
Ask Lavallee for a business card and he’ll write his number on your hand. In fact, you can’t even find Tremolo Lounge without guided instructions. There’s no convenient Main Street address, no neon sign to signal your arrival. The studio is a pastoral, converted suburban house annex. And though you have no doubt driven (and perhaps even walked) lower Pleasant Street dozens of times, you probably have never noticed that Fontanez Recording Studio exists there.
The decision for Sam Margolis and Andrew Kramer of Riverview Studios, in Waltham, to go pro, came naturally. Margolis says of their approach, “It’s all been organic, so we haven’t put a focused effort on trying to build a business. The approach has been more networking and community-based and doing projects that we’re truly interested in and have fun doing.”
The need for instruments beyond the range of the band members while recording their own CDs brought them into contact with a number of area musicians, who then inquired about renting the space for their own projects.
Their studio, too, is tough to spot, hidden within a nondescript suburban home along the Charles River.
To find these studios you must actively seek them, and ingratiate yourself to the local scene, unlike Boston and Providence, where a host of trade magazines devoted to the music scene carry ads for highly competitive studios vying for clients.
Some musicians/engineers prefer it this way.
Luke Bass, an area engineer and bassist with a host of local groups, including The Farmers Union Players and Kalifa and Koliba, has what he refers to as “a project studio on steroids” near College Square, where, he says, he “can get the quality of a bigger studio.” He has released a fulllength recording by Kalifa and Koliba; is presently working on a follow-up; and has plans for a Farmers Union Players full length this year. Bass, however, has little interest in being a business owner.
(PHOTO: Zack Slik plays banjo during a recording session at the studio of Luke Bass. Steven King/Worcester Mag)
“I only work with people I like, and I don’t have to make money on it, so I don’t call it professional,” he says. “I keep my day job, and the day job pays for everything, so I only record people I enjoy. But the quality I’m getting is through the roof.”
Guitarist David Stadig, of Northbridge, who runs David Stadig Studios and King Kat Productions, feels the same way about the business end of recording. “If you’re doing that commercial venture,” he says, “then you’ve got to kind of put up with that stuff.” His motives for building the studio, like many musicians, are personal. “I publish my own stuff. My whole purpose was really just as an adjunct to being a lifelong musician.”
Modern technology has made it possible for the modern musician, like Stadig and Bass, to forego the professional studio and do it themselves. Innumerable others have, too.
Ubiquitous local bluesman, Jon Short, has done lots of his own recording. Of his numerous CDs since 2005, his 2006 recording “Barrelhouse Ramblers,” with Paul Chase (bass) and Josh Teter (drums), “was recorded live here in Worcester with Jonathan (JD) Leary at [Leary’s] home studio”; 2007’s “Three Different Ways,” with Keith Carter (harmonica), “was recorded live at my home studio on Pro Tools”; 2009’s “Live from the Shack at Vincent’s” “was recorded live with one ambient large diaphragm condenser mic on the porch of the shack, using a Zoom 4 and was mixed/mastered by Bill Ryan”; 2010’s “Big Shorty” “was recorded live at my home studio”; 2012’s “Live from the Shack at Vincent’s 2011” and “34 Special (Limited release)” “were recorded live with one ambient large diaphragm condenser mic on the porch of the shack, using a Zoom 4”; and his band Big Eyed Rabbit, with Duncan Arsenault (drums) and Jeff Burch (bass), “just recorded live this past Monday night with Paul Dagnello using a bunch of incredible equipment” at Erick Godin’s Lucky Dog Music Hall.
So, it can be done. And Short’s recordings are hi-fi and clean and professional sounding. Short, however, specializes in a genre of music that values the live over the recorded, the primitive over the complex, vintage over modern, and so, single takes without overdubs, limited effects and editing, and ambience are preferred.
Kramer and Margolis home record, too, except that their home is a studio. They met at the formation of their current band, Comanchero, nearly a decade ago, and, after self-recording the band’s first two CDs, the pair got serious and attended Boston University’s CDIA (Center for Digital Imaging Arts) degree program, applying their newly acquired knowledge to the band’s most recent CD, 2011’s “The Undeserved.”
“I think that recording was just such a natural part of all of our musicianship,” Kramer says. “Sam and I each had our own setup at home.”
Their results, though, testify to the potential quality of “home” recordings. Margolis says that, even with the first two CDs, “a couple of the tracks got some play on the radio.”
“We got great gigs out of it,” he continues.
Fontanez says that the experience of home recording, in addition to being an economic and/or creative necessity, and sometimes a little funky, can be fun. “When I started, I was recording in my friend’s kitchen, on Home Street,” he recalls. “The control room was the kitchen and the vocal booth was the laundry room. We had this joke that the cockroaches were the background vocals. It was a great time!”
“It was still pretty good recording. We had Pro Tools [multi-track software], MBox [digital interface], and a decent microphone, and a nice preamp. It was mostly for practicing. We had a band going. It was more for us, just to see how it sounded.”
(PHOTO: Alejandro Fontanez in his recording and rehearsal studio. Steven King/Worcester Mag)
Fontanez opened his studio after over a decade of travelling as a performer. “I got married, and I started doing a lot of mixing at my house. It got busier and busier, and I decided to open a studio right here in Worcester.”
Lavallee says that brilliant recordings are being made locally, both in the city’s professional studios and in “people’s closets.”
“I’m biased, but I’ll say this: Legendary records have been made [at Tremolo Lounge], whether I’ve worked on them or not,” he says. “There are records that I think that I could play for anybody that have been done here over the last 20 years that would blow your mind. So, yeah, I know that it’s possible.”
Lavallee also agrees that the magic could happen on a home project studio. “I’ve heard stuff that people have done—on their own, in the Worcester area—that is awesome, incredible. People come with demos to me sometimes and they think of it as a scratch demo, and they don’t even realize how great it sounds. I think it happens sometimes by skill and sometimes by trial and error and sometimes by dumb luck, especially if you are writing and creating something that is sort of unique sonically. It’s definitely possible and it has happened where people have made amazing stuff – in Worcester and in their closets, or on their laptop or on their iPod.”
Fontanez agrees with Lavallee, with stipulations. “I think that the technology is such that you can get a good recording sound [at home]. You’ve just got to learn; you’ve got to know what you’re doing recording-wise.”
Stadig further stipulates, “If you’re very meticulous about what you do, you could have a recording that sounds just as good as something that is done in a professional studio with a poor engineer. It still comes down to, even if you’ve got all this great equipment, you’ve got to have someone with great ears, and someone who knows how to use the gear to its optimal effect. I’ve heard a lot of lousy recordings come out of what should be good sounding recordings.”
For their first disc, 2010’s “Live at the Emporium, Greatest Hits, Vol. III,” J. Stu “Dr. Gonzo” Esty and his band, The Roadkill Orchestra, chose to record on their own at a makeshift studio set up at Gonzo’s Unusual Condiments storefront, because, as Esty says, “It was important for us to record it where we had written and practiced the songs.” So, Esty continues, “Bill Nelson, who had a studio for years above Union Music, was gracious enough to come down and set up a live recording. With the technology we have today, we could go straight to hard drive.”
This approach wasn’t foreign to Esty. “I’ve been recording since the ’70s, beginning in my bedroom with reel-to-reel recorders and razors, Tascam 4-tracks, all of it.” And the experience of working professionally wasn’t always appealing, he notes. “When I was in Europe I recorded in Nuremburg, and every time you’d go in, you’d see that tape, and when that light would come on there was money going down the drain and you had to either shit or get off the pot. And so it was always nerve-wracking to lay it down that way.”
Self-recording, though, wasn’t without its own inherent problems. “We had some separation problems we had to deal with,” Esty says, but the situation brought out an old-school musical toughness that he liked. “You had to bring your A game. It was a Ramones-style thing. We laid down 16 tracks in six hours. Fourteen were keepers and 12 made it onto the disc.”
(PHOTO: Luke Bass in his recording studio near College Square in Worcester. Steven King/Worcester Mag)
Bass’s experience with the pros was similar, and he says that the compulsion to self-record “started…because we went to the other studios and I didn’t like the sounds we were getting. When we couldn’t get it, we decided – me and my partner at the time – we needed to build the studio ourselves. That’s when I started buying equipment.”
“Best thing I’ve ever done in music, except [to] start playing music,” he says.
According to Bass, the problem with commercial studios is that most artists don’t get to work with producers. “They work with an engineer and they pay by the hour. And the engineer’s job is simply to get a recording, and I think it’s kind of a cookie-cutter recording. You’re paying by the hour, and you don’t have $10,000 to put into an album, so everybody’s always watching the clock and everybody’s trying to get as many songs in as they can. It doesn’t work, to me, to be a quality album.”
Working in your own studio, he says, is entirely different. “If I don’t like a track, I’ll record it 10 times; I don’t care!”
“Going out and hiring a [commercial] studio,” says Stadig, “would run you anywhere from fifty to one hundred dollars an hour, and if you needed players, you’d have to hire guys or try to get people to do things. If you’re pretty prolific at what you do, those kinds of moneys can add up pretty quickly.”
And like his fellow musicians, desperation became, once again, that mother of invention. “At that point I started researching how I could set up a small project thing for myself and that’s how that took place,” he says.
By all accounts, it is cheaper to record at home, and this is probably the top reason cited for doing so. This presents a lethal business arrangement, when the primary market is poorly paid musicians, who no longer enjoy the unbridled patronage of an earlier time. And as noted, an old Tascam four-track can be purchased for next to nothing (in fact, they’re probably being given away today), and you need as little as an iPod with the right app or a basic portable digital recorder.
“Good gear is still expensive. Period,” says Stadig. “But you can do a lot more with the advent of digital equipment and signal processing and all the trappings than you could 10 years ago. I mean, 20 years ago? Forget it!”
“The climate has changed so much in the last 10 or 15 years,” says Lavallee. “Everybody’s got their own home recording systems, whether it’s Pro Tools or Logic or Garage Band, and they’re able to do really cool stuff.”
So, things have gotten less expensive and more user friendly. Why not just do it all at home? Well, you could also paint your house, repair your own car, service your own computer, home school your children, and transplant your own vital organs (this last one might not be legal). Why hire anyone?
Well, as Lavallee points out, “It’s not immediately apparent to everybody what a large studio—what a producer—can bring to the table. They [home-studio owners] know how to record the stuff, but they don’t know how to mix it; they, perhaps, don’t have the space or the mics or the interface to do a full drum kit, or a full tracking of the backing band.”
The modern compromise, then, says Lavallee, is a mixed effort, whereby artists on a tight budget might track the parts that they feel equipped to handle at home, and hire out the studio for multi-microphone applications, or critical pieces like mixing and mastering, fullband recording, and vocal recording, that require trained, acute ears.
In fact, it’s not only local bands and artists that operate this way. Lavallee says the whole industry does, and that the days of unlimited budgets – even for big-label artists – are long over. Nowadays, he says, signed artists are likely to have a budget of, say $50,000—a paltry sum compared to the heydays of the 1970s, when major bands would wile away a year or more in a studio developing a project. Today, even bands like Wilco and Los Lobos, for instance, develop ideas and track in their own rehearsal studios, before heading to big studios for mixing, overdubs, and mastering.
Still, Kramer points out, “even there, they have engineers on hand to work the equipment and set up all the microphones,” which frees the band up to do what they ostensibly do best: write and/or perform.
And, as with the bands mentioned above, a mixed approach of personal and professional settings suited Roadkill Orchestra’s needs on their first, self-recorded effort. “We did the mixdown at a studio down in Whitinsville,” says Esty.
Moreover, not all exiled recordists are able or willing to invest the considerable time, money and energy required to do it right at home, as Bass has.
“About two years ago I found myself a nice isolated room where I could record anytime I wanted, but it was really small. I moved down the hall and got a much bigger room and was able to put in the extra rooms. I had the gear to do it. I didn’t have what a professional studio would have in the isolation rooms and the windows, so people could actually see each other while they play even though they’re in separate rooms. That was basically the next logical step to getting a better recording: having finely tuned rooms and a real recording environment instead of a band room.”
Another crucial element that doesn’t come – either included or optional – with the purchase of recording equipment, is a producer’s ears, and years of experience.
“To work with a great producer and put real money and real time into an album? I would absolutely love to do that,” admits Bass. “Recording can be a daunting process. It’s a lot of hours of mixing, a lot of hours in the studio. I would love to just be able to walk in somebody else’s studio, lay my tracks, and walk out, and get a great recording. But without having either great people producing it or a lot of money backing it, that doesn’t usually happen.”
“Bands come here just because they don’t want to deal with any of the setup and the tweaking or the troubleshooting, or anything,” Kramer explains. “By the time you’re done getting the sound you like and checking for phase coherency and getting the levels all right, sometimes it’s tough then to go be creative, when your mind is all focused on the technical aspects.”
One additional bit of useful wisdom that Margolis and Kramer acquired during those formative recordings was that “it’s pretty easy to fuck up a recording.”
Fontanez agrees with this wisdom. “When it comes to the engineering part – to mixing – that’s when you need the help,” he says.
Ultimately, musicians must face this truth. “I am a composer and a performer. I am not an engineer,” says Esty, whose second album “was designed to be the next level up, a studio one. We were fortunate enough to get into Tremolo Lounge.” The benefit, he says, was in the engineer. Lavallee’s abilities, he says, are “phenomenal. He hears every fucking note! His musical knowledge is so vast. You say, ‘I’m trying to get this sort of a vibe, this sort of a feel, in this kind of a color, and the sound of the ocean,’ and he knows exactly what you’re talking about. He’s been around long enough so that he can get any kind of a sound. And, plus, with the gear that he’s got there….”
Ah! To have a professional, who has been through all the trials and errors, and has spent years developing an ear for recorded music.
“You just go in there and play and that, for me, is the essence of making music, says Esty. “If I had unlimited resources, I would ensconce the band in the recording studio and never fucking leave!”
Studios stay alive because some artists are simply baffled and overwhelmed with the prospect of outfitting a studio, mastering a litany of highly technical devices, and devoting years to developing the subtle hearing skills required of good recordings. And all agree that Worcester has studios that offer this professional experience.
“There are very good studios in Worcester,” asserts Bass. “You definitely do not have to go elsewhere. No matter what your style is, there’s someone out there that has a decent enough studio that can record you at a much better price than you can get in Boston.”
Kramer at Riverview Studios says that they’re doing very well west of Boston, and that business is increasing. “We’ll have maybe five ongoing different projects, where we’re mixing one project, we’re recording another, we’re coproducing another. It’s basically two to three nights a week we’re working on other people’s stuff and one night a week we’re focusing on our stuff.”
Still, Margolis says, it’s not enough to go full-time. “That’s where the day job comes in,” he says. “I think we could [make a living on the studio], but we’d have to work our freaking asses off, networking the hell out of bands around here.”
(PHOTO: Leighton Kennedy plays the saxophoe during a recording session at Fontanez Studio. Steven King/Worcester Mag)
Fontanez says of area studios, “We are cheaper than other cities. We get great quality here. There are people who have been to Boston who now know about this studio and who now come out here.” His optimism is buoyed by the movement of Boston’s Bristol Studios, which opened a voice studio with him and are now training singers here.
This trend makes him hopeful for the future. “Hopefully in five years – 10 years – we’re going to need more studios to open up to handle the business. Right now, it’s not a big music scene in Worcester,” he says. “There are a lot of great artists, but Worcester is that type of city where you have to push people to get them involved.”
Band seeking audience looking for something energetic, new (or at least new-to-them), wholehearted, accessible, and authentic. We hope to offer an experience that is not only inviting to the ear, but transportational – the kind of show that you wake up the next morning still pondering.
So says Xar Adelberg of Portland, Maine’s Cinder Conk, an esoteric accordion and upright bass duo that specializes in Balkan music. The group plays Friday, July 6, at Nick’s Bar and Restaurant, perhaps the only drinking establishment in town that could accommodate such an act.
Cinder Conk, which has performed together for nearly two years, is the union of two musicians’ passion for arcane forms of music. “Living in Maine, there are not a lot of people interested in delving into Balkan music,” points out Adelberg, who “was playing with a Manouche (gypsy jazz) trio,” while “Matt [Schreiber – accordionist] was studying Serbian accordion and getting acquainted with various Eastern European accordion styles.”
The two, she says, were “looking to find collaborators to play and perform with and we hit it off.” The pair met when Adelberg posted a note on Craigslist seeking fellow riders to a Balkan music show in Boston. Adelberg, only recently introduced to Balkan music at that time, but developing an insatiable appetite for it, “was playing modern/original jazz with her quintet, Loki, and also performing with Ameranouche, a gypsy jazz trio based in the Northeast.”
Schreiber, meanwhile, was living in Berlin, Germany, working as a language teacher and getting acquainted with the Balkan immigrant music scene. He was also playing North African music with an oud and percussion player.
The two began playing together with the “interest in connecting with people who see the same depth and excitement that is inherent in this music.” Adelberg says. “This can be with people who have no idea where the Balkans are, or Bulgarian seasonal workers that happen to catch a gig of ours.”
“What a lot of people don’t know about this music is that, like the architecture and art of Eastern Europe, these songs have been vetted over hundreds of years. There is a message in the music that we hear when we listen to it, and do our best to convey when we perform it.”
Hearing the accordion isn’t surprising in today’s indie-rich scene. In fact, the accordion has long had widespread appeal in the music of a number of prominent musical regions of America, and has even enjoyed popular success in rock acts for decades. Cinder Conk, however, might require a bit more refined ear. Like the mossy growth for which the band is named, the appeal of this group rests in the eye of the beholder. To some, the odd, rigid rhythms and carnivalesque melodies might grate on the ears like a cankerous mushroom consuming its host tree. To others, of course, the deep traditional strains and commitment to the evolution and context of live performance might be medicinal, like the healing properties of the cinder conk.
The music of Cinder Conk isn’t merely an attempt to lull listeners to darker corners of music via contextualization amid popular forms – say, dub step with accordion. This music is hardcore and totally instrumental. The melodies challenge the ear with eastern European cadences. Still, Adelberg, a veteran of modern, original and gypsy jazz outfits, brings a fondness for experimentation. “In the instance of music from this part of the world, innovation and experimentation are essential parts of the tradition,” she says. And this, when bridged with Schreiber’s deep immersion in Baltic heritage, makes for electrifying music.
Cinder Conk relishes the live environment. Adelberg reminds me that the 20th century brought to human ears, for the first time, the repeatable performance of recordings. “We are used to listening to recordings, which are, by definition, static records of a single performance,” she says. “While we can hear these same recordings over and over again, it’s important to remember that it is a moment captured in time that may come across in a completely different way in its next iteration. What we do try to be reverent of is the inflection, flavor and spirit of the music.”
And being first and foremost a live act – albeit an uncommon live act – their goal, it’s no surprise, is “connecting musically with listeners and with each other…sharing those moments with open ears” and “creating a vibrant counterpoint between the two instruments,” which she says “can create a sound that is almost orchestral in scope.
Don’t miss this opportunity to hear this old/new music played with a vigorous and serious spirit in what might be the perfect setting for it: Nick’s German-themed music room.
New arrivals to Worcester are quick to notice the potential of this city, held afloat by a small but devoted group of activists, who work tirelessly to provide fun, equity and culture. Paul “Paulie” Collyer is one of them; though, if you ask him, he’s just having a party and promoting the things that he loves.
Kick off the summer of 2012 with a taste of New Orleans in the up-and-coming neighborhood of Piedmont, west of Park Avenue on Chandler Street in Worcester, at the 5th annual Paulie’s NOLA Festival, on June 22, 23, and 24. This year’s bill features New Orleans heavyweights Sonny Landreth, Tab Benoit, Johnny Sansone, Mem Shannon, Eric Lindell, and Anders Osborne; rising talents, like The Royal Southern Brotherhood; and local and regional acts, like Boston’s Soul of a Man; Connecticut’s Shaka and the Soul Shaker; and Worcester’s Roadkill Orchestra, as well as food by Sweet T’s Southern Kitchen and Vinnie’s Crawfish Shack, and beers by Harpoon.
“I got world class musicians in my back yard and hundreds and hundreds of folks having a good time each year,” says Collyer. “It beats picking up trash or raking leaves.”
The idea came to Collyer at the 2007 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. “My first one,” Collyer says. “I had only planned to catch Van Morrison… .I didn’t miss a minute of the festival over three days and said to [my friends] ‘I could do this!’”
And so he did, beginning humbly with a free show in 2008. “Two bands: Hurricane Horns and Chris Fitz [who also played a great set in 2011], four kegs of Harpoon IPA and buckets of gumbo and Jambalaya from One Love Café,” says Collyer. “My best pal of 30 years, Jimmy DiSanto, and I served the beer and food. It was free, and 200-plus showed up.”
Collyer liked the result, and he did it again in 2009. “We bumped up to six bands and started charging $15. We drew new folks,” he says. “In 2011, we sold about 1,400 tickets [over two days, despite heavy rain on Saturday night], and I hope to sell 2,000 this year.”
The festival is held in an unlikely spot: the sand driveway behind John and Sons II deli, but Collyer doesn’t skimp on providing a great experience. He brings in professional sound engineers and enough gear to outfit side-by-side stages that allow for leap-frogging the band setups and near-continuous music.
As for the unlikely location of the festival, it’s all part of Collyer’s larger vision for the event, which, as it turns out, isn’t all fun and games. “My festival crew has chosen to host the festival in the part of the city that needs a lot of uplifting and support, and a part of the city that doesn’t always get its fair shake as a vibrant, valued segment of the Worcester community. We have made an effort to bring in new fresh music to the city from Louisiana, as well as support the local Worcester music scene and broader New England music scene.”
“I am a hardcore city guy who likes to have fun in the city. Green grass is for cows not the blues and jazz!” he says.
Worcester isn’t a favorite tour stop for most traveling acts, but that hasn’t deterred Collyer. “I start bidding early for them [and] am aggressive in my bid,” he says. His business philosophy, furthermore, is sound. “We have treated the musicians well. We have a nice festival and the Louisiana musicians have acknowledged this and have been supportive of what we are doing in the Village of Piedmont. The Gulf Coast went through a lot the past seven years, and so has my neighborhood the past 30 years — there is some synergy there. Rebirth requires a lot of help and these cats all know about that.”
Asked about Worcester’s response to the festival, Collyer is fair and optimistic. “The majority of the crowds have been from out of town,” he says. “But I have a hardcore group of Worcester locals involved in the festival planning who dig the New Orleans scene, and this group is getting bigger.” In fact, last year, upon word that legendary guitarist Tab Benoit had been acquired for the festival, a major buzz was generated, and people attended the festival from Boston, upstate New York, and even New Orleans; the upstate New Yorker telling me, “I go wherever Tab goes!”
“Phish,” he reminds me, “was in town last week and not everyone in the DCU Center was from Worcester. I dig being able to draw folks in from elsewhere. New blood is good in a community, and it adds more economic bang.”
In the end, Collyer is just “thank[ful] to those who have been supportive over the past four years,” and adds, “to those who are just hearing about the festival for the fi rst time, give us a try, I don’t think you will be disappointed.”
Paulie’s NOLA Festival, June 22, 23 and 24, 2012, Keystone Plaza Urban Fairgrounds 221 Chandler St., Worcester, baevents.com/pauliesnolabluesandjazzfestival.
When press releases for the Worcester Public Library Bookmobile began appearing this spring, spreading the news that “Libby the Library Express,” as she was named by Worcester Public School students, would roll out soon after, the catch phrase was, “this is not your mother’s bookmobile,” an oft-employed device meant to invest the potentially geeky, dated image with the allure of reinvention, rebellion, and, even, danger. This would not be the old mailbox-turned-on-its-side-with-wheels that genially roamed Worcester’s neighborhoods of yore (between 1940 and the early 1990s), staffed by severe old maids, gray hair pulled tight into a bun, who’d shush you and slap your hand away lest you should touch one of the books.
This newfangled state-of-the-art bus – a veritable earthbound space station – would roll into your neighborhood, straight out of “Pimped,” and hipsters, like Johnny Depp as Willie Wonka, would welcome you aboard into a space you once glimpsed when you peaked into your older brother’s room as a child, as “Are You Experienced” played amid clouds of smoke and the glow of black-light posters.
Would Libby really be new and cool enough to amuse and attract kids of today, and, perhaps, perplex their moms? Could it reach the disenfranchised and bring them back into the fold, making them positive forces in the ongoing war against ignorance and want? Could it extend loving arms around the homebound, providing them with an essential link to society and community and knowledge? Could it be one small step in a potential great leap forward toward the elusive ideals of Dickens and John Maynard Keynes, away from greed and hoarding that some claim has created unprecedented wealth concentration and disparity?
THE BUS CAME BY AND I GOT ON
(PHOTO: Libby open for business near Elm Park in Worcester. Steven King/Worcester Mag)
I boarded the magic bus on its second day in operation – Tuesday, June 5 – when it stopped in front of Thorndyke School, off of Burncoat Street in Worcester, its large awning suggesting “open for business.” The bus, a rival to neither the Batmobile (’60s or modern) nor even the Munster Koach for cool, evoked a food truck – albeit a visually conservative one. It wasn’t the Merry Prankster’s day-glo-painted “Further” bus, but merely a long khaki modified school bus bedecked with a Harvey Ball smiley face and a couple of air conditioning units on the roof.
Sheepishly I knocked, and sheepishly they answered, mobile librarians Mark Lindberg and Joe Blake. Blake and I talked a bit as a harried Lindberg, in bangs and James Joyce horn-rimmed glasses, leapt in and out of the vehicle – like a lysergic Ken Kesey before an acid test – trying to work out wireless issues. As yet, there weren’t any kids lined up, and both seemed to be experiencing preshow jitters. Blake sat aside the driver’s seat, where, traditionally, the steps to board and unboard the bus would be. Now, however, like the historically coveted rear seat of the bus, it had been transformed into a checkout station with a laptop computer and barcode scanner.
“It’s exciting to be a part of,” said Blake, a new hire to the Worcester Public Library and a former commercial fisherman from Alaska. “We’ve gotten great response!”
Void of patrons, the bus felt small and narrow, and like little more than a new room at a motel: blonde wood shelving, black raspberry wall-to-wall carpeting, and fluorescent tube lighting. I wondered whether this décor could possibly excite today’s kids, who, conventional wisdom had it, needed the bells and whistles of Disney and Chuck E. Cheese, the near-strobe activity of Halo or Nickelodeon programming.
Perhaps due to the novelty of the bus or his position at the library, Blake had a subdued, intense glow when he spoke about the bus, its mission, and about the thrill of “seeing kids’ faces light up at finding the right book.”
(PHOTO: Children look through books inside the bookmobile. Steven King/Worcester Mag)
Soon, of course, a few customers climbed aboard, nervous-like, taking careful steps, maintaining quiet voices and keeping their hands to themselves. School was out and these were preschool kids being chaperoned by grandparents, who, perhaps, were sitting while moms and dads worked.
This may not be your mother’s bookmobile, but it seemed a welcome sight that evoked a bit of nostalgia for the moms and grandmoms, who had memories of the original bookmobiles. Ann Marie, a Thorndyke library volunteer, came aboard with her grandchildren in tow, and spoke of memories of bringing her own children to the bookmobile. Another grandmother shared similar memories of bringing her children to Wawecus School up the street for bookmobile visits in the early 1980s. Her son is now 44 years old, and here was her grandchild, third-grader Olivia, snatching up copies of “The Magic Tree House” series and signing up for her first library card.
Moments later, Eric, 8, produced a library card that he proudly declared to have had for two years, and checked out copies of “The Lightning Thief,” “Because of Winn-Dixie,” a Big Nate comic strip book, and DVDs of Pokemon and The Muppets.
“There are potential MLKs [Martin Luther King Jr.’s] living in environs that don’t have access,” Blake said about the Library Express’s mission. “This could give them a whole new direction.” Circumstances, he said, had given his life a new direction once, too, when the Exxon Valdez ran aground near his home, and he had to leave to seek fishing work. “You never know what’s going on in these young brains,” he says. “These could be people who make a great impact on society.”
HAVE MERCY! BEEN WAITING FOR THE BUS ALL DAY.
According to the American Library Association, the bookmobile origins in America begin in 1905 in Washington County, Maryland, with Mary Lemist Titcomb, the first librarian at the Washington County Free Library, in her attempt to reach detached communities in the largely rural county by distributing materials to “general stores, post offices, and other locations throughout the county via the library’s wagon.” Washington County had a motorized bookmobile by 1912, offering “expanded…rural service to stops at seniorcitizen centers, schools, and other locations.”
Today’s vision is the same, according to Mark Contois, the outgoing director of the Worcester Public Library, who says that “the goal is to reach the less mobile in society, who may be prevented from visiting a traditional, bricks and mortar library by economics or even geography – separated by highways” and other tangible and intangible obstacles, and, ultimately, to “enhance the quality of life for Worcester residents,” according to Mayor Joe Petty.
The burgeoning social government of FDR’s New Deal, expressed through the economic principles of John Maynard Keynes, drastically expanded the social services of the U.S. government. Among the offerings were bookmobiles, which were commonly funded as part of municipal budgets, peaking after World War II, when as many as 2,000 such vehicles operated nationwide.
Worcester’s first bookmobile, according to the Worcester Public Library website, “launched on Monday, November 18, 1940, under the leadership of head librarian Emerson Greenway…intended, in part, to provide service to areas of the city that were not in easy reach of the main library or one of its branches.” Though wildly popular and successful (2,500 of the 2,700 stocked volumes were checked out the first week, and, in 1951, 150,000 books were circulated), the traveling library branch nearly met its doom during the war, but was saved by women volunteers. The subsequent decades, despite the universal popularity of bookmobiles, saw the decline of municipal budgets, and Proposition 2-1/2 in the 1980s effectively killed the bookmobile.
Today’s reemergence of bookmobile services is not, however, the recommitment to Keynesian values that broadly supported social spending years ago. Today’s re-imagination of social services usually involves private partnerships. And that’s where Libby’s story begins, with a collaboration between the city of Worcester, the Worcester Public Library and the College of the Holy Cross.
Director of government and community relations at the College of the Holy Cross, Edward Augustus, says that since “most bookmobiles are supported out of a municipal budget or…[the] library budget,” when faced with “the typical kind of up-and-down budget years that you have in municipal government” when cities face cuts to vital staff, like “police or fire or classroom teachers…things like bookmobiles might be seen…as something that has to be given up.”
(PHOTO: Libby moving on Main Street in Worcester. Steven King/Worcester Mag)
Augustus says that this partnership between the city, the Worcester Public Library Board of Directors and College of the Holy Cross, which has pledged $80,000 annually for five years to support maintenance, fuel, technology and staff, will ensure that Libby is around for a long time.
“Now you’ve got an outside source or stream of funding that makes sure that the costs of operating the bookmobile are provided for,” he says. “I really don’t see a situation where we wouldn’t want to continue this. I think our working assumption is that we’d all be interested in keeping this thing going for the foreseeable future.”
YOU’RE EITHER ON THE BUS OR OFF THE BUS
Obviously efforts to increase literacy and foster enfranchisement fall somewhere below staffing firefighters, police officers or classroom teachers on one’s priority list, but most at least recognize it as a noble experiment, a generous gesture, or even a practical idea. By nature, library employees and educators embrace the goals zealously; targeted citizens welcome the service, and, even business owners value its pragmatic workforce and economical implications.
(PHOTO: Mike O’Brien at the dedication ceremony. Steven King/Worcester Mag)
“More than 10,000 people each week visit the Main Library to use its computers and Internet access,” City Manager, Mike O’Brien says, adding that “the Library Express is a means for the library to reach out to neighborhoods to make services, including technology, more accessible to our citizens. Access to technology,” he says, “remains one of the most critical needs of city residents.”
“We’re in a knowledge-based world,” says Augustus. “And so the idea that we’re helping to facilitate the access to knowledge and information…I think it’s good for the economy, it’s good for the community, it’s good for the quality of life.”
The idea, says Contois, is that “a reading city is a vibrant, literate city, which improves the quality of life for all who live there.” He believes that “we all benefit directly or indirectly from these community outreach efforts,” and hopes that, “in time, these individuals will make it to the downtown library.”
Mayor Joe Petty says that the Library Express is not just for kids, but for everybody. “Young and old, and everyone in between, there is something for all residents on the Library Express. I know many of our older residents struggle sometimes to get down to the library and the Library Express is going to areas where older residents can once again enjoy books, music and DVDs from the library.” The bottom line, says O’Brien, is that “libraries are America’s great information equalizers – the only place people of all ages and backgrounds can find and freely use such a diversity of resources.” The Library Express, then, he says, is merely “an extension of our libraries, brings these services where libraries can’t go.”
Drivers/librarians Blake and Lindberg say that, while patrons of the bus, of course, would prefer their own neighborhood library branch, the Library Express, with its collection of books and DVDs and hi-tech gizmos, “is a branch library.”
RIGHT ON! THAT BUS DONE GOT ME BACK!
Augustus believes that the benefits of spreading literacy extend to the intangible and philosophical, as well. “Our fate is completely connected to the fate of Worcester. We have 1,100 people who work here at Holy Cross; a huge number of them live in the city of Worcester. So, this is their city,” he says. “They’re going back into Worcester’s neighborhoods at night. They’re raising their families here – they’re raising their kids here, their grandchildren here.”
This fate includes students at Holy Cross, as well. “Our students,” says Augustus, “many of them stay here after they go to school. They get connected, in some way or another, and decide to make their life here. So, this is an investment in making sure of that quality of life, as well.”
Then, of course, is the reward of a good deed done. “It makes us feel really good about real-life people who, whether they’ve got mobility issues, or some kind of a physical handicap or limitation that doesn’t allow them the kind of easy access to the main library or to one of the two branch libraries – the idea that this can come through their neighborhood, the building they’re living in, or whatever – it’s just a great thing,” Augustus says.
CAN I BUY YOUR MAGIC BUS?
Despite universal agreement about its many virtues, the issue of disbursing dollars to fund it, amid a climate of sentiments of the evils of spending other people’s money, becomes much more complicated. Both Contois and Augustus spoke of the often difficult circumstances that prohibit more success stories; and of the fortuitous coincidences that brought this bus out of years of storage on Route 20.
“Everybody supports the notion of a bookmobile,” says Contois, “but it took a well-timed coordination of these forces to make it happen.”
“In 2006,” says O’Brien, “the City of Worcester purchased a functioning bookmobile from the City of Fitchburg in hopes of working with private sponsors and donors to assist in its operation.” Though, according to Augustus, “it kind of mothballed for the last four or five years down on Route 20.” Meanwhile, says O’Brien, “the Worcester Public Library Foundation initiated conversations with business leaders, corporations, colleges and others to assist in its restoration. The foundation had approached [Holy Cross] on a collaboration that would leverage its strengths in academia and education with the library‘s vision to move toward a 21st century, technology-driven, interactive resource. Holy Cross responded positively to the idea and pledged its support of the service.”
“I actually served as a member of the library foundation board in the course of our work on the board trying to find a source of funding for the bookmobile,” says Augustus. “And it was one of the goals of the library,” he says, “to find a funding stream that would allow it to be kind of rehabbed and then have the operational costs replaced so we could put it back on the road.”
Contois credits “the arrival of [Rev. Philip L.] Boroughs and Ed Augustus at Holy Cross, and the present city manager,” who, he says, “all supported the idea.” Augustus seconds Contois’ notion, but believes that the outgoing president shares the credit. “Our outgoing president, Father McFarland, gave us permission to pursue it,” he says. “And Father Boroughs, the new president, coming in, really embraced the whole notion of it, and he was president when we actually inked the deal.”
“I’m relatively new to my job as director of government and community relations here,” says Augustus, “and when I saw that opportunity and the mission of Holy Cross, in terms of education and the potential benefit of something like the bookmobile, it just seemed like it was a natural fit and a natural opportunity for the college to give back something to the city.”
“We got the ball rolling, just got the conversation underway and the librarian and the city manager just kind of worked the details out.”
Augustus dismisses claims that Holy Cross’s donation is little more than a token gesture; a product of PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) designed to ward off proponents of taxing our colleges and other nonprofits.
“It’s important to remember that Holy Cross has a longstanding and ongoing relationship with the city,” says Augustus. “We give over a million dollars of scholarships to Worcester [Public Schools] students to attend Holy Cross every year. We participate in the Wheels to Water program. Plus, we made a $10,000 contribution to the city to help pay for the costs of getting kids from different parks and neighborhood centers here to the college. We host, at the request of the city, the Worcester Tornadoes.”
“There’s just a huge number of programs that we have ongoing with the city. We’re probably in 25-plus schools doing tutoring, mentoring and student teachers. We have work-study students who are in everything from Abby’s House to the Boys & Girls Clubs to the mayor’s office to – just name a community-based organization. We fully staff the South Worcester Neighborhood Center’s summer camp for kids. It’s all Holy Cross students that Holy Cross pays.”
These programs, he’s quick to note, are not limited to Holy Cross, either. “I know every single college in the city has all sorts of really interesting subsidy budgets with the city. Some of them are focused on their immediate neighborhoods, and some of them are focused on aspects of their college’s focus that might be unique.”
EVERY DAY I GET IN THE QUEUE
I rejoined Blake and Lindberg the following week at an afternoon stop at the Guild of St. Agnes after-school childcare center, on Grove Street, a non-profit with goals kindred to the public library. According to teacher Cheryl Stall, the students who attend the center represent a wide range of educational and economic levels, from city schools like McGrath, Norrback Avenue, Flagg Street, May Street, and Abby Kelley Foster. Stall says the Bookmobile is a great fit for the center’s aims, “especially for summer reading,” as, she believes there are “many parents who couldn’t afford to buy the books” or provide transportation to the main branch. Several kids, in fact, were picking up books for required summer reading.
(PHOTO: Patrons visit the bookmobile. Steven King/Worcester Mag)
The week before, Blake and Lindberg had been vaguely apologetic about the lack of crowds, and forecasted better turnout as word of the Library Express got around (ads were placed in the Telegram, on the Worcester Public Library website, and even in the Booth Apartments newsletter) and schools got out, much the way farmers might stand around predicting (or hoping to predict) the rain.
In the meantime, they waxed enthusiastic about places they’d been and the crowds there. Their best responses had been, they said, at senior towers, assisted-living facilities and low-income housing projects, where elderly folks who hadn’t been to the library in years, were beckoned by their pied piping, joyfully acquired books; and many, unable simply for lack of internet service, merely checked their email.
Blake estimated that during the first week they had loaned “hundreds of books” (one hundred at a single stop!) and issued 50 to 75 library cards.
All the technology kinks had been worked out and now, Lindberg says, it will be “rare to have technology issues,” which, as I would observe, made checking out books and dealing with library cards and accounts much easier.
They had new concerns, though. Despite excellent turnouts at Washington Heights, off of Mill Street, and The Fairways across from Worcester Country Club on East Mountain Street – where they experienced great volume and a wide variety of patrons (“Toddlers to adults,” Lindberg says) – today’s stop at Guild of St. Agnes, would be their biggest yet: six classrooms’ worth of kids.
Lindberg and Blake were beginning to develop confidence about what they could handle. Blake estimates that he and Lindberg could service about “30 customers an hour” under normal conditions, and as much as “100 an hour” if they were particularly “systematic.” Neither seemed, however, particularly interested in rigid systems or about ushering people in and out at the expense of a good experience, which seemed their main interest. I asked if kids could lie around on the carpet and read a book. They said, “Suuure!” I asked whether they were concerned that the books might walk away, never to return, whether they might simply be feeding books into the void. Blake said, “We’d rather not, but that’s part of the risk. These kids are more important than books and paper.”
Then, the first class arrived – the oldest kids. They stepped aboard, eyes wide, looking around corners, like they’d entered a house they believed to be haunted. Then, they saw the four iPads and tablets, and loosened up.
“Can we use these?” they asked. Lindberg and Blake, like indulgent grandparents, said what they always said: “Suuure!” And the kids were off. The tablets were instant ice breakers. Two boys excitedly spied two full-sized touch-screen computers. Within seconds, they had Microsoft Paint up and were coloring motorcycles. It was like Christmas morning, but I wondered whether the purpose was to put kids in front of more shiny facile technological activities, while the books sat expectantly like exiles on the Island of Misfit Toys. Within a few moments, though, the kids sprung from the tablets and started overtly savoring the books, too.
“Oooh, look! ‘Twilight!’” cried one.
“‘Hunger Games,’” cried another.
Fourth grader, Jessica Flood, who located solitaire on the iPad in a nanosecond and began playing, seemed pumped up about the books, too. She found the Bookmobile “fascinating” and “cool,” because it had so many “portable electronics,” yet still “looks like a library.” A self-described geek, she grabbed copies of “Dork Diary” and “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” with her library card, which she says she uses at frequent visits to the downtown library.
A toddler climbed aboard and laughed at Blake, amazed, saying, “You work in a truck! That’s funny!” She couldn’t wait to climb off and “show Gramma” her books. Another, walking past the bus with her mom, provided a happy, drawn out, “That’s awesome!”
Several kids reported being unable to go to the bricks-and-mortar branches of the library, while others, like Jessica, said they went often. Several had library cards, though many had lost theirs, and others had never had one. It didn’t matter, though. Lindberg and Blake were on a crusade of almost missionary zeal to put cards in their hands and books in their arms, helping the children to fill out applications, locating accounts online, or renewing expired cards. These were eager floor salesman doing whatever it took to close the deal. There were lots of smiles, though not the insincere types found on sales floors.
In the process, parents and kids learned all about book lending. This, Lindberg and Blake repeatedly explained, was just another branch of the library; books could be accessed by computer from any library in the C/W MARS system, and even delivered to the monthly stops; books could be returned to any library branch; how many items could be taken at a time; and such.
The kids, meanwhile, perused the shelves like sophisticated shoppers, checking out copies of books like “Stink,” and “High School Musical 2.” As the classes moved progressively from oldest to youngest, the kids grew smaller, but the enthusiasm and armloads of books stayed the same, until they appeared all but hidden behind their finds, like caricatures of college coeds.
Kindergartener, Stephanie Muriuki, proudly stepped up to the counter and deposited a significant stack of books, including two from the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series. She said that she had read all of the others, but that she “needed to read these.” Blake accessed her account, checked out the books, and deposited them into a bag, which she carried off with the air of a seasoned shopper, library card held high like a credit card as she bounded down the steps.
To discover the next stop of Libby’s route, visit worcpublib.org/libraryexpress.
The Internet, it was then said, changed all that, allowing universal and (on some level) equal access to this once coveted distribution network. Bands even willingly dropped their labels, opting instead to release their own music via the Internet’s slew of music channels.
Still, record companies have held on, and bands still seek to sign with them.
Worcester-based hardcore band, Mountain Man, is now one, with the announcement of their deal with No Sleep Records, an independent label based out of Huntington Beach, CA.
“These days, most people can do the same services that a label can,” says Patrick Murphy of Mountain Man. “But being part of a label is like a family and like Victory Records in the ‘90s, [No Sleep Records] has a core group of followers who listen to every record the label puts out.”
Mountain Man formed in the summer of 2009 when members of Last Lights and I Rise gathered with the initial intention of simply recording some tunes written by singer Josh Smith.
“Mountain Man definitely started as a side project, with no intentions of ever doing anything besides recording a demo and playing random house parties,” says Murphy.
Soon after, however, it dawned on the band members that the work had “oceans of potential” and the band “started writing more real songs, doing real tours and getting recognition from people we never in a million years expected.”
Record labels agreed, and the band was signed – three times: first to Mightier than Sword Records, who released their 10” “One”; then, by Think Fast! Records, who signed them in 2010 and released the band’s first full-length “Grief”; and finally, by No Sleep Records.
“We have all been in serious signed bands before,” says Murphy. “So the business side wasn’t anything new to us.”
“No Sleep really has so much to offer, and that’s why we signed with them,” says Murphy. “They have the budget and distribution to help us to expand to a new audience that may not have been opened to us before.”
“We have some pretty weird ideas (the band’s debut record, the brutal and dark “Grief,” is a concept album that “channels the fi ve stages of grief,” according to Murphy) and we never have to twist their arms for them to let us do it,” he says. “No Sleep has given us 100% creative control of the band. Chris (Hansen, founder of No Sleep) was a fan of the band before we even began [contract negotiations], so he was already on board with what the band was about,” he says. In fact, Hansen says on the No Sleep website that he is “stoked to be working with Mountain Man and to add them to the family. I’ve been a fan of Mountain Man with their past releases on Think Fast and MTS and could not be happier.”
So what’s next, now that the band has signed the golden ticket and has the backing of likeminded suits – who are also fans – and who have access to industry gears and controls? “We have a few things up our sleeves at the moment that we can’t really talk about right now, but we have a new EP coming out this summer on No Sleep Records and are doing a little touring to support it,” says Murphy. “After this summer, we’ll be writing a new full length and hopefully recording [it] in the winter.” Stay tuned to Mountain Man’s Myspace profile, or nosleeprecs.com for dates for tour stops and upcoming releases.
Q&A: Stu “Dr. Gonzo” Esty
I caught up to Stu on the occasion of The Roadkill Orchestra’s monthly residency at Vincent’s, on Suffolk Street, in Worcester. (They play on the second Saturday of each month.) At this point the band had cemented its lineup (Stu Esty – piano, vocals; Austin Beliveau-drums, James Bennett – saxophone; Jerry Maday-bass & Darren Pinto- guitar), and Stu was well into renovations at the new location of his shop, Dr. Gonzo’s Uncommon Condiments, which had relocated from the north end of Main Street, Worcester, to a more discreet setting at 90 May Street, Worcester.
Me: Tell me the abbreviated biography of Stu Esty.
Stu: Oh, Jesus! There is no abbreviated biography. Even the “Hemingway” version could take up volumes. My grandmother taught piano. I spent a lot of my infancy in a bassinette underneath the Steinway Grand Piano as she taught a parade of six, seven and eight year olds, who were killing the Thompson’s registry. [Thompson’s is a popular set of teaching method books.] Rumor has it that even before I could speak I was climbing up onto the piano bench and finishing phrases that they couldn’t handle, because I just knew how to play the friggin’ songs.
I started taking lessons at the age of six with Phoebe Yassyr, a fantastic Egyptian woman of small stature and immense patience. I did not know that I had dyslexia, so the notes flowed for me on the page. It was my interpretation of classical music for almost ten-eleven years. All I really wanted to do was to play rock ‘n’ roll.
Me: But the reading was tough?
Stu: I could see where things were supposed to go, but the notes float on the page. So, for me, it was always in my interpretation. I learned to play by ear, and this gift has allowed me to play with others (although I do love running with scissors).
[I formed my first band when I was seven, in our music room in our house, called the Esty’s Pesties. We were going to take on the elementary school and birthday party circuit. I paid my best friend Chet Brett, a quarter to be our front man (booking and promoting), because he was tone deaf. So, I gave him a quarter and he went and spent my hard earned money on penny candy at the Buffalo Store, in Southboro. So, I lost that investment. That was my first lesson in dealing with the harsh reality that is Rock and Roll.
Me: And was all this in Southboro?
Stu: No, inFramingham. Right on the Ashland/Southboro line.
So, I formed my first rock ‘n’ roll band when I was seven, learning how to deal with other musicians and their personalities and emotions. Had a friend in the neighborhood named Allan who begged to be the rhythm guitarist. We tried jamming but he just wasn’t up to the task (we were freaking seven) so I called in my friend, Billy Carb who I had played with in church. When Allen realized that he was not going to be playing lead he had a slight melt down until we had him switch over to bass guitar. No one told me that there was more to just playing music when you’re starting a band. It was another life lesson and pretty steep learning curve when you’re seven or eight years old and writing your own material.
I remember writing my first song when I was four. It was about what I was gonna be when I grow up. My nursery school teacher stumped me. She asked me what I was gonna be when I grow up – on a Friday – and I thought about it until the enc of the day and then remember that asked if I could think about it some more. So, I spent all weekend dwelling on the subject. The whole conundrum – I wanted to be a captain on a whaling vessel, but I knew that Moby Dick was out there. I wanted to be a cop, but there were robbers. Be a robber, there were cops. Be an Indian, there were fucking cowboys. Be a cowboy, there were Indians. Be a game hunter, there where rhinoceri. So, I figured out early on I wanted to be a milkman.
Stu: Yes. You get to hang out with dairy animals. Go to work early. You’re out of work by noon. They give you your own truck to drive around, and everyone was happy to see you. It’s a good thing I didn’t know about adultery, otherwise I would have had to rethink that one, as well.
Me: Or Monty Python. Bring it to the present. How did you end up in Worcester?
Stu: Early ‘90s we moved up here.
I left New England in the ‘70s – late ‘70s – lived all across theUnited States– out west, down south. Moved overseas. Lived in the Orient for two-and-a-half years; lived in Europe for three years, trying to replicate what we have here inWorcester, and I couldn’t do it. I’m a thirteenth or fourteenth generation New Englander, out ofFramingham, and it’s in my blood. I need the weather changes, I need the people, I need the diversity. But I can’t live in suburbia. I need an urban environment. Our family has always been Worcestercentric. My father worked for Norton Company for twenty-four years; my grandfather had a paper distribution house down where the Centrum [now theDCUCenter] is; my great uncles all taught at WPI, and so we’ve always been Worcestercentric. And you can’t replicate what we have here anywhere else.
I moved back to NewEnglandin the early ‘90s, specifically here in ’92-’93, doing a triple-decker existence with a young bride.
When my boy was born, back in 1999, I was out playing five nights a week. The Roadkill Orchestra was one of the projects I was in, with Austy – “Tuna”. [Austin Beliveau, current RKO drummer] Tuna and I (and a series of folks) tried doing this and for three years we failed to find the right people to fill out the band. But the music scene back then was different. Everybody was still looking for that golden carrot, and there was a lot of competition instead of cooperation.
Nowadays the music scene has changed as has the industry has changed, as you know, and it’s a lot more cohesive. It’s cross promotion. I’ve found that (at least here in Worcester) more people working with each other instead of against each other, and I’ve studied the music industry all my life, and whether it’s Detroit or Athens [GA] or Muscle Shoals [famed Alabama recording studio] or Seattle, there are hotspots popping up all over the place. The industry is always looking for the next hotbed, and there’s so much talent here. There’s so much talent in this town. The depth and breadth of talent here is – I can’t turn around without stumbling upon somebody who is an artist, spoken word, a writer, a filmmaker, a musician – it doesn’t matter. All my friends are incredibly talented. I feel blessed to be here. I really do. You can get more shit done inWorcester than in anyplace else in the world, I’ve found. You want to get something done fast? Come toWorcester. But don’t tell anybody that, or else they’ll all show up.
Me: Tell me how you got down onto Main Street with the business [Stu relocated his Uncommon Condiments Emporium to 90 May Street, Worcester, in the spring of 2012 from 122 Main Street.] and the modern version of The Roadkill Orchestra.
Stu: I took a look at my life, in 1999, and I was out playing five nights a week, and I had a young family, and I really had to take a hard look at where my priorities were. So, I put a suit and tie on, and I gave it [music] up, with the exception of a gospel choir. I wasn’t the same person. I tried putting it away, and I’m not the same person. I work out a lot of my demons through my music. I leave most of my emotions onstage, and I’m able to deal with life that way – in my lyrics and in my performance.
When things fell apart in my personal life, I made a commitment to get back to music, and part of what I’m doing with my condiment business is to create a community. The things that bring us together as a species, in my opinion – in my experience – the three things that bring us back together after everything is tearing us apart is music, art, and food. Those are the three unifiers that I’ve found, and what we’re doing with the Dr. Gonzo product is all three of those things. OnMain StreetI had the ability to play music and open up the doors and just blast it out ontoMain Street, just because of our location. If I had tried doing that anywhere else, I would’ve got into a lot of trouble. But because we were innorth Main Street, a virtual ghost land, we were able to do that.
To get my writing chops back up to speed, I forced myself to have the Turd Thursdays Writing Challenge, and I would have challenges put out there once a month that sometimes I even couldn’t come up with. I’d say, “This is easy.” It wasn’t. But it got me to write again, which was very important, and a lot of what you hear on the first album and the second album are from the Turd Thursday Songwriters’ Challenge.
I’m currently going through an incredible creative spurt, over the last month. I don’t know who I’m channeling, but I’m writing more lyrics than I can shake a stick at – on the back of Dunkin’ Donuts bags that I rip open, bits and pieces of trash…I’m just writing lyrics all over the place. I was sitting in Beatnik’s [rock club, onPark Avenue,Worcester] listening to my friends James Keyes and the Ten foot Polecats, and I ripped out some more lyrics sitting at the bar in front of Chris. It’s amazing how much good talent is out there.
So, we’re doing our CD release party on [Saturday] June 16th, and I’m afraid that these boys are going to have to learn another twelve or fifteen tunes before then. I might not even play our second album when it comes to our CD release party.
Me: And where is the CD release party?
Stu: it’s gonna be at Ralph’s with Kevin Williams and the Invisible Orphans, out of Providence [RI]; with WHAT, a fantastic jam band out of Worcester, featuring Jay Kelly and the boys; and the ever popular and ever hilarious Shaun Connolly, a.k.a. Flip McClaine. He’s going to be our emcee for the evening.
Me: Tell me a little bit about the new lineup of the band.
Stu: Fantastic lineup! I’m totally blessed! Life has gotten in the way of a lot of our prior lineups, but this latest lineup is spectacular. Austie is still with us. We picked up James Bennett on tenor saxophone last March. He’s a perennial favorite; he’s the eye candy of the band. Jimmy the Lid. We also have Jerry Maday on bass – one of the most talented amateurs I’ve ever run into –multi instrumentalist who studied theory and composition. He’s coming up with bass melody lines that are absolutely spectacular, which frees me up to do other things. We also have the right reverend Darren Pinto on guitar, who at one point in his stellar career toured with George Thoroughgood and the Destroyers. And this evening we also have our former bass guitarist “Magic Don”, who is also a killer guitarist – sitting in on second guitar!! He’ll always has a seat here with us. Anytime.
Me: I’ve never seen you with two guitars.
Stu: Well, he’s an occasional second guitar. Jimmy the Lid is not able to be with us this evening. [He’s on] that work release program. [Laughs.] He’s back wearing the orange jumpsuit tonight.
Me: You’ve played Vincent’s before.
Stu: We scored the Second Saturday Spectacular residency, so every second Saturday of 2012 you can catch our musical mayhem right here at Vincent’s.
Me: So it’s every other Saturday?
Stu: Every second Saturday. The Second Saturday Spectacular. It is once a month. Unless there’s three second Saturdays, which, if there is, please let me know, because I have to rearrange my schedule.
Me: On somebody’s calendar. Do you like playing at Vincent’s?
Stu: I love it! I absolutely love it! It is snug, but it is the most intimate venue for the audience to get to know what’s happening. [Laughs.] And also possibly the world’s best meatball sandwich.
Me: Oh, yeah! But you’re a big guy and Roadkill makes a lot of noise. How do you tame that here?
Stu: We do, somewhat. It’s about listening to each other and being attentive to the audience. It’s all fun. It’s like playing in your living room. You really can’t fuck up here.
Me: Tell me about your new location [for Dr. Gonzo’s Uncommon Condiments].
Stu: 90 May Street! [Worcester– corner of May/Mayfield between the Park Ave. CVS and next door to Big Y supermarket]
Me: Same mayhem?
Stu: Same mayhem, new location. The buildout is not complete. When it is finished, we hope to have the first ever in the country at least walk up and possibly drive-up condiment window, where you have to talk into an intelligible jalapeno speaker. We will understand you, but you will not understand us. That, in itself, is worth the drive and price of admission.
Me: And will you have the same products?
Stu: We’re bringing our products back in a phased manner, and some of our products will be relegated to a seasonal status. But we’re endeavoring to keep a high quality of consistency and availability to our customers.
Me: And any new stuff coming along?
Stu: No, we just gotta get our customer’s favorites back first! After that, we’ll talk! [Laughs]
“I’m so excited about our new material as I think it represents our best work to date,” says Comanchero’s Sam Margolis, of the band’s latest full-length release, “The Undeserved,” a collection of 13 songs recorded at the band’s own studio – Riverview Studios, in Waltham – and Boston University’s CDIA Studios, where band members Margolis and Andrew Kramer studied.
Critics seem to agree, as the disc has received plenty of positive press, from Relix, Northeast Performer, Metronoe, and even British country magazine (go figure!) Maverick, among other European publications, and has led to new and exciting live opportunities. (See accompanying article.)
“It’s been a really fun ride since we released the album,” Margolis says.” It debuted at number 16 on the jambands.com radio chart and has seen consistent radio play on over 100 stations nationwide.”
The CD runs the gamut from straight-out, old-school country (“Other Side of Town,” “Back in Town,” and “One Foot in the Grave”) to reggae (“Fall in Line”). Throughout, vaguely political lyrics (“Jimmy Carter,” “Undeserved”) peacefully coexist with down-on-your-luck country laments; aggressive drums with a broad range of electric and acoustic instruments; and plentiful ear candy, the last, thanks in part, to Margolis’ and Kramer’s schooling and fulltime access to Riverview Studios.
“We spent three years making ‘The Undeserved,’” says Margolis, “and, since we finished the album last fall, we’ve already released three new singles, including our latest this month.”
Ready access to the studio has had positive effects for the band, too, including community building, which has evolved as area musicians come into to use the studio.
The latest single, “The Sniper,” for example, released on April 12 (free to download at comanchero.bandcamp.com.), features stunning lead guitar by Berklee College of Music ace and Hendrix scholar, Thaddeus Hogarth, who booked the studio to record a CD of Hendrix songs.
“We’re now approaching our recording and studio work as an ongoing process,” he adds, “and I think that has really helped us evolve our new material. As a result, this year we’ll be releasing new singles every 6-8 weeks. Maybe by the end of the year we’ll have another new album.”
This article originally appeared in Worcester Magazine’s Thursday, April 26, 2012, issue. All photos courtesy of Dirigo and Comanchero.
Potato, potahto, tomato, tomahto? Let’s call the whole thing off.
Both Dirigo and Comanchero, who come together for a show on April 27 at Tammany Hall on Pleasant Street in Worcester, label themselves, though both also get a little squirmy about labels. Dirigo, who describe their music as “jamericana,” and Comanchero, who call theirs “nuevo Americana,” want listeners to be more open-minded.
“I hate the labels!” exclaims Luke “Patchen” Montgomery, guitarist for Dirigo, about the oft-maligned term “jam band.” “If you look at any old Led Zeppelin footage, they stretched stuff out and (their songs were) different from day to day. To me, that’s what a jam band is.”
“(Guitarist) Steve (Jones) is pretty heavily into the roots-Americana vibe,” adds Patchen. “We kind of combined those two sounds into jamericana. So, it’s like trying to do some country-flavored music, but also letting it stretch out. We didn’t want to do anything too Grateful Dead or Phish. We didn’t want to really just let it go completely out there into the ether. We kind of wanted it to have a basis in roots music – country music – but also let it kind of breathe a little bit.”
“The song is the essence of the whole thing,” Patchen adds. “I come from a background of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, and Neil Young, for example, where the essence of the song is really the heart of the whole thing, and then stretching it out, letting it breathe and improvising on it is the secondary part,” he explains, citing The Stones’ “Let it Bleed” and “Sticky Fingers” as particular inspirations.
Dirigo and Comanchero share a love of roots music, in general, and American country music, in particular. So, while both bands enjoy instrumental, improvisational music, their approach is more Austin than San Francisco, more “Live at Folsom Prison” than “Live Dead.”
Dirigo, comprised of Patchen, bassist Erik Glockler, guitarist Steve Jones, and drummer Russ Lawton, know of what they speak. Dirigo features members of the seminal Burlington, Vt., jam band Strangefolk; Phish guitar guru, Trey Anastasio’s, touring band; and wellknown Maine folk/Americana band, The Boneheads. The band grew organically from post-Strangefolk-show acoustic jams, taking a life of its own as an acoustic duet (much like Strangefolk’s own early-’90s UVM origins), and by 2004, included drums and bass, adding the current band name in 2010.“It’s a good old rock ’n’ roll show,” says Patchen. “(We’re) just having a good time and having fun. We’ll definitely stretch things out and have a good time, for sure, and jam out,” he says about the Tammany show. “We really just want to have everybody dancing and having a good time – just enjoying the music.”
Sam Margolis, of Waltham’s, Comanchero, says that their mission is similar: “When I played lacrosse in college, we had a saying before every game: ‘Play loose, have fun, and leave it all on the field.’ I think we strive to create a vibe that is contagious for our audience. At the end of the day, we want to give our fans a new experience that’s entertaining, provocative and engaging.”
Comanchero’s live show, like Dirigo’s, is high-energy, tight and varied. “Songs like ‘One Foot in The Grave,’ ‘Jimmy Carter’ and ‘Fall in Line,’” says Margolis, citing three up-tempo, catholically country tunes from their 2011 release, “The Undeserved,” “get our crowds dancing. I think our Americana and roots influences shine through with these new tunes, but we still like to have fun sprinkling in other genres we dig, like reggae, Latin, and jam.”
Comanchero, made up of brothers Greg Moon (vocals, drums) and Bob Moon (vocals, guitar), Andrew Kramer (bass), Sam Margolis (vocals, guitar), and Jim Levin (percussion), came together in 2003, and have since released three CDs. The most recent, 2011’s “The Undeserved,” has received great reviews (see accompanying CD review) in a number of high-profile American and U.K. publications and paved the way for a recent gig with Ronnie Earl at the Regent Theatre, and spots this summer at the 2012 Harpoonfest, in Boston, and opening for Crosby, Stills & Nash in New Hampshire.
Of the April 27 show, Margolis says, “I can’t wait to play Worcester with Dirigo. This will be our fourth show playing with them and they tear down the house at every show. They’re amazingly talented musicians and can captivate their audience until the last note is played.” So, call it what you want. This Tammany show will unquestionably feature two road-tested, dynamic live acts with a taste for good old songs.
And there might just be a little jamming, too.
Dirigo and Comanchero, Friday, April 27, 2012. Tammany Hall, 43 Pleasant St., Worcester. dirigomusic.com, comancheromusic.com, tammanyhalllive.com.
Duncan Arsenault’s photo collection of Scott
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