Most of you who have been paying any attention in recent years know Stu “Dr. Gonzo” Esty, the giant of a man who cuts a big figure on the local scene, whether it’s his bigger-than-life personality, his landslide-inducing laugh, his big stature, or his big hands pounding out big bluesy, gospel-tinged tunes on the piano backed by his big, big voice, which you could hear in his ubiquitous appearances at any local club with an upright or a stage, or at his former lair, Dr. Gonzo’s Uncommon Condiments, where he holds down his straight job (ha!) conjuring up mustards and relishes and other ungodly concoctions meant to test your molecular fortitude, all the while bringing big-time cheer to the “hysterical courthouse district.”
Expect big-time energy and funky, up-tempo boogie music in the vein of Little Feat and Joe Cocker’s “Mad Dogs and Englishmen,” as Esty’s Roadkill Orchestra holds a CD-release party for its latest effort, “The ‘B’ Set from High Atop the Secret Underground Laboratory,” on Saturday, June 16, at Ralph’s.
The show will also feature Providence’s Kevin Williams and the Invisible Orphans (introspective power rock) and Worcester’s What (loose-limbed, Dead-inspired rock), all emceed by Worcester’s own comedian/late-night host, Flip McClane (Shaun Connolly).
“I’m hoping that folks can make a conscious decision to just put [all their cares] aside for even an hour or two,” says Esty. “Music is a powerful medium and everyone needs a little downtime or escape from the norm. Consider us as a sonic shower or bath that you can use to wash away some woes. Lather, rinse, repeat.”
The new CD finds the band in its best form to date, with a great, complementary lineup, featuring Esty on piano and vocals; Austin Beliveau on drums; James Bennett on saxophone; Jerry Maday on bass; and Darren Pinto on guitar; and with a slew of material, some from Esty’s recent creative hot streak, and some dating back to the ’70s and ’80s.
“I’m currently going through an incredible creative spurt,” Esty says. “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, bits and pieces of trash….I’m just writing lyrics all over the place.”
The new album, Esty says, was helped along considerably by his long-running “Turd (third) Thursdays Songwriting Challenge, a monthly event Stu has hosted at Dr. Gonzo’s Uncommon Condiments storefront for years. This was a place where local musicians could try out material composed along a series of alternating themes and guidelines.
“These events were a lot of fun (and well attended) and a lot of good music came about because of the event, mostly because we had a deadline,” Esty says.
“The first song on this CD, ‘Norton 850,’ was actually a product of two months’ worth of challenges. The first was to write about a moment in your life where an experience changed your life’s path or direction (the summer of ’68 when I first hear the rumble of an English two-cylinder bike). Found that I had the idea but the story and hook just did not reveal itself to me in the time frame. The next month’s challenge was where the tune’s hook and feel came from.”
“Norton 850” is a good representation of Gonzo and RKO’s work: rootsy and rocking with a narrative teeming with humor and shades of meaning, hidden beneath progressive blues-rock rhythms, blistering lead guitar and jazzy sax lines.
“My intention is to write songs that move me but have a broader message that will resonate outside of this moment and have a story line or hook that will appeal to a larger audience,” says Esty. “The tune should move you physically and emotionally and might even have you humming it in quiet moments. I make an attempt to incorporate different levels of meaning into the lyrics, so that if you have the time and inclination, you can read into the tune and enjoy it on another plane.”
RKO plans to work more of the new CD’s material into the current lineup for its slew of upcoming shows, which includes its usual spot at the annual Paulie’s NOLA Fest, in Worcester, in June, and its monthly second Saturday show at Vincent’s. They also hope to sneak in some recording dates.
“We have an aggressive June schedule—you can spend the summer following us in your VW bus,” says Esty. “And we’re planning on capturing two or three of the new tunes, hopefully again with Roger [Lavallee, of Tremolo Lounge Studios, where “The ‘B’ Set” was recorded], and releasing them as singles over the summer.”
Check out the RKO CD-release party on June 16 at Ralph’s Diner (95 Prescott St., Worcester, ralphsrockdiner.com), become a fan of the band at Reverb Nation (reverbnation.com/theroadkillorchestra), and pick up a copy of the new CD at an upcoming show, at Dr. Gonzo’s Uncommon Condiments (at its new location at 90 May St., Worcester), or online at music retailers like CD Baby, Amazon, Spotify, Rhapsody or Googleplay.
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.