“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.
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.
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.
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]
Duncan Arsenault’s photo collection of Scott
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“I was in the studio and my phone rang,” recalls Roger Lavallee, a musician, engineer and producer. “It was my friend John Donovan, who performed every Tuesday night at Vincent’s with Scott. Why would John be calling me at 11:30 a.m.? I answered it, and he began with, ‘I really don’t know how to say this…’”
This scenario – one we all fear – played out around central Massachusetts and throughout the Bay State, as well as up to Vermont, where childhood chum, Childhood band mate and close friend Ken Ebell lives. Similar phone calls delivered the same tragic news to a nexus of distraught family members, a life partner, musicians, fans, friends, club owners, bartenders and music writers – a massive web spun over 48 years of life and almost as many making music: James “Scott” Ricciuti had succumbed to injuries incurred when his car left Rt. 290 in Northboro and landed in the median strip.
“I ended my [recording] session, and like a zombie, went to be with my girlfriend and my dog. I spent the day cycling between numbness and breakdown,” adds Lavallee, whose relationship with Ricciuti began with sharing bills with Riccuti’s band Childhood and evolved over two decades as Lavallee became the central engineer/producer of the vast majority of Ricciuti’s body of work. Inadvertently, Ricciuti became one of Lavalle’s closest friends.
Lavalle’s sentiments echoed a veritable deluge of outpourings on Facebook and through articles in a host of area publications, as the local scene attempted to grasp the reality that “the glue” of the local scene was gone.
“The area – not just the local scene – just lost the most prolific, talented songwriter they will ever see so close,” asserts a reeling Paul Dagnello, 13-year bassist for Ricciuti’s most enduring band, Huck. Dagnello expresses an overwhelming consensus about Riccutti, who was universally lauded as a poetic, smart, tireless, and, above all, thrillingly energetic musician.
Ricciuti’s close acquaintances were quick to clarify, however, that his true gift expanded far beyond music. Hours of interviews revealed reverent tones about a guy whose art was his life force, and a personality of complete “inclusiveness.” Local musicians Annie Eggleston and Michael Thibodeau— Ricciuti was the best man at Thibodeau’s wedding—both told stories of being warmly pulled into Ricciuti’s spotlight, fostered and nurtured.
“He took the attention on him and put it on others,” recalls Thibodeau. “I’ve known him for a decade, but it felt like a lifetime. He was my best friend. He was the person I was most intimate with musically, and who I talked to about everything.”
“The first time I met him, he was a funny looking kid with a funny haircut who could play a little bit of saxophone,” remembers Ken Ebell. “I was in fourth grade, and he was in fifth.” The two would go on to form a band as a couple of music-class geeks, informs Ebell, and would eventually conceive Childhood in the 1980s and enjoy significant local success, even winning the prestigious WBCN Rock ’n’ Roll Rumble in 1986. The two played for years before parting ways in 1990, though the friendship endured—Ricciuti stood up as best man for Ebell a month later. Recently, Ebell joined Ricciuti for several engagements, including a Childhood reunion and a set on piano at a Ralph’s Pistol Whipped show.
“Who’s closer than a brother,” asks Ebell. “We spoke the same language. We didn’t even have to talk about stuff. We’d finish each other’s sentences.”
“I don’t think there’s been a better person ever born,” he affirms.
Local drummer, Duncan Arsenault’s, relationship with Ricciuti blossomed exponentially in recent years as the musician became a regular feature of Arsenaults’s Thursday night series at The Dive Bar in Worcester, where, along with bassist Jeff Burch, Pistol Whipped germinated when Ricciuti introduced the pair to his original songs.
“You can’t have this wonderful musical community and expect when something bad happens for it to be easy,” Arsenault laments. “[Ricciuti] had true love for other musicians. He was really inspired by everything. He was so fired up and inspired by music. I think he’s the greatest songwriter. He didn’t need to do any more work, but he was still working at it really hard.”
“He was incredibly willing to participate musically in anything. He had endless energy for gigging. He was down to play. There were times when he would leave a gig he was already playing and come over to The Dive and do that one as well,” he remembers.
Arsenault takes heart in the phenomenal response to the online stream of his extensive collection of MP3 recordings of Ricciuti’s music, and downloads of Ricciuti’s and Pistol Whipped’s “Like the Red Haunts the Wine” on Bandcamp, while others too have taken solace in hearing his music being piped at Oxford’s Casual Dining in Oxford and at TT the Bear’s Place in Cambridge; hearing Ricciuti’s lilting country ballad “Saddest Side of Monday” in a local diner; and in the Rumble set dedicated to Ricciuti by Bow Thayer and Perfect Trainwreck.
“The most heartwarming thing that has happened is the outpouring of respect for him,” Arsenault adds.
“I can’t even begin to untangle what effect Scott’s loss will have on the local music scene,” grieves Lavallee. “It has already had profound effects on me and my closest friends, from wanting to make music in his honor to feeling really lost and wondering how do we go on without him. Among the many things that I am so heartbroken that I will miss: knowing that I no longer have the next song to record with him to look forward to, is really making me think about the shape of my future as a producer.”