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.