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.