Tag Archives: Worcester Music

Talkin’ Jazz: Galindo/Phaneuf Quartet Releases Top-Shelf Jazz CD

by Matt Robert
Article originally appeared in the May 29th, 2013, Worcester Magazine

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.

Check out http://www.jeffgalindo.com or http://www.reverbnation.com/jeffgalindo for information and updates, and download a copy of this stellar CD at http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/talkinhorns.

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Stomping at Nick’s: Worcester Bar to Present “The Unknown Ellington” March 22 through 24, 2013

By Matt Robert
Originally appeared in the March 14, 2013 issue of Worcester Magazine.

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.

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To B or Not to B? Worcester’s Big Eyed Rabbit Won’t Be Pinned Down By Titles

By Steven King

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.

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Great Scott! Ralph’s Show Features Music of Huck, Childhood, and Pistol Whipped

by Matt Robert/ photo by Louie Despres

Originally appeared in the December 27, 2012, Worcester Magazine.

“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.

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Soft Balls: The Balls Dedicate Vincent’s Acoustic Show to Scott Ricciuti

by Matt Robert / photos by Jessica Lovina O’Neill

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.

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A Night of Great Local Rock ‘n’ Roll: The Roadkill Orchestra, Comanchero, Big Eyed Rabbit and Matt Robert – Tammany Hall – Friday, December 7, 2012

A Night of Great Local Rock ‘n’ Roll! The Roadkill Orchestra, Comanchero, Big Eyed Rabbit and Matt Robert Tammany Hall – Friday, December 7, 2012.

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Local Tunes: Recording in the City

Originally appeared in Worcester Magazine, August 2, 2012

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.”

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