by Matt Robert
The January 2014 release of The Curtis Mayflower’s debut CD, “Everything Beautiful Is Under Attack,” will set a high mark early in the year for best CD, one which will undoubtedly raise the stakes by which area bands play.
The Curtis Mayflower is the combined result of decades of individual work and commitment and an unlikely scene in an unlikely place that provided the centripetal force that eventually brought these five select players together.
Their debut CD, too, is an organic outcropping of this little scene in this little place – Duncan Arsenault’s six-year run of Thursday nights at Green Street’s Dive Bar – where Worcester’s faithful came out in increasing numbers to experience free, varied and exciting music without too much hype.
Fittingly (perhaps coincidentally) in the same spirit that produced The Band’s landmark “Music from Big Pink,” the record was recorded in an out-of-the-way Maine farmhouse in a simple fashion, quickly and without pomp and circumstance.
Great things seem to come of this method.
The band, Pete Aleksi (guitar), Arsenault (drums), Jeremy Curtis (bass), Brooks Milgate (keys), and Craig Rawding (vocals, harmonica), has a resume of individual accomplishments that can’t be topped, including work with The Delta Generators, The Curtain Society, Bow Thayer and Perfect Trainwreck, Booker T. Jones, Levon Helm, Big Eyed Rabbit, Hey Now, Morris Fader and Beg, Scream & Shout, among others. In some cases, this could be a problem.
Curtis calls the formation of The Curtis Mayflower “serendipitous” and says that the five musicians are “all on the same page” and “willing to turn each other on to different stuff.”
In other words, they have chemistry and shared vision. It comes through in spades on the record, where each player tips his hand to personal tastes, but the overall sound lies tantalizingly beyond categorization. Don’t get me wrong. This is, at heart, a blues and soul record, territory more than familiar to each member of the band. (Any soul band would proudly claim songs like “NYCD” and “Last Kiss.”) But the conventions of blues and soul have become mere elements of a larger influence, not genre-specific, but of an approach to music, which, like Big Pink, makes use of influence in the service of something new. So, while the ear continually hears familiar tonalities (Aleksi says it’s all “reminiscent of other music”), the end result is a fresh addition to the rock idiom.
“Clockwork Hearts,” which opens the disc, is melancholy with a menacing lock-step guitar lick that will get your head rocking. The dynamic control is phenomenal and the attention to subtleties exciting. The band can make a lot out of an idea that might simply be beaten to death by a lesser band. Everything you need to know about The Curtis Mayflower is revealed here. These cats have soul, and, man! Can they play!
“Seven Children” is a brooding, tribal mood that might be at home on a Pink Floyd record, but soon gives way to a blues lament: “Meet me where the moon’s on fire and the earth is still. I have seven children in the ground.” The band is confident and dynamic, with no hesitation. The guitar solo is pure Robert Cray blues, crisp and melodic.
The exceptions to this general sound are track two, “Ben the Destroyer,” a wild, light-hearted romp of raging rock pandemonium and a tribute to the hyperbolic abilities of Ben, and the aforementioned “NYCD” and “Last Kiss,” both a bit lighter and more genre-specific. “Everybody definitely brings their own influences,” says Aleksi, “but there’s something different happening as a group.”
A love of ‘70s bleeds through, the album pushing everything in a heavy direction. Guitar riffs are biting and tough, keys are chunky and distorted, the rhythms spare but solid – and deep. A riff hearkens to Traffic, Blind Faith or King Crimson, Stevie Ray Vaughan or Robert Cray, yet it is couched in a context that feels new and fresh.
The players, as it is well known locally, are all masters of their craft. Each is in just the right place at the right time on the record, perfectly complementing the rest with a tasty lick and killer tone. Craig Rawding is a rock monster, somewhere between the smoky growl of vintage Gregg Allman and the rare rock scream of Robert Plant or Ian Gillian.
The record is a wash of textures, too. The arrangements are spare, perfectly layered and full of air. Ear candy abounds, and the players don’t rule out any mode of play that may be useful. The result is surprising sounds throughout. Each time the listener settles in on the tonality of a song, a surprising sound pops up. And it’s always the right sound. Yet, the record isn’t layered with endless effects and overdubs, the downfall of the unlimited tracks of Pro Tools.
In fact, with the exception of a few overdubs of shakers and backing vocals, the cuts are live. No overdubs or patches were used to sweeten or fix the performances. In the true spirit of the Dive series, this is essentially a live record, an old-school capture of a great band.
Curtis says the band just set up in the farmhouse on a Friday night with engineer David Westner, “went over the game plan, and just went for it,” recording through Friday night and all day and night on Saturday. “The arrangements just happened in the studio.” He says they “just put it all on the table” to see “what they came up with.” Band members left with a rough mix on Sunday and the final mixing occurred later.
And this is the gift of Arsenault’s Thursday night series, a local Fillmore or Minton’s, with lots of time and no pressure. Week after week, Arsenault called on friends to come out and make music. After the untimely death of Scott Ricciuti in April 2012, Arsenault had to look harder. The fortunate outcome of a horrible tragedy was a web of musicians that grew exponentially, drawing players from throughout Southern New England, eventually settling into several discrete bands.
The Curtis Mayflower began this way, too. As Aleksi and Curtis explain, they were merely invited down to the Dive, as friends of friends (Aleksi from Western Mass. as a friend of Milgate, and Curtis from Boston). No one was picked from a classified ad (“Singer seeking proto-metal outfit for steady gigs. No amateurs need apply!”) In fact, there was no immediate game plan, except to jam and see what happened. “It was really like, after several of these Thursday nights, there was a lot of cool experimental stuff happening,” says Aleksi. “We wandered into the sound.”
All the songs came out of spontaneous experiments, including vocals. “Craig plays an instrument with his voice,” says Aleksi, “coming up with lyrics out of nowhere.”
And from chaos, comes order. Band members shared the weekly recordings, culling ideas that showed potential for songs, and adding them to a permanent repertoire.
“Due to the nature of the musicians,” says Curtis, “it’s hard not to recognize a theme and say, ‘someone ought to make a song out of this.’” Still, the band likes to keep it loose and hang out on the edge, where the good stuff happens. At a recent show at Atwood’s Tavern, in Cambridge, Curtis says, the band stepped up to begin the second set, when Aleksi said, “try this,” and the band simply stepped into unknown territory before a live audience. Their recent recording, the soundtrack to the film, “American Mongrel,” too, is extemporized. Curtis and Aleksi both say that the music is “easy.” Curtis adding that “it created itself.”
“Organic is the best way to describe it,” he says. “We recognized that we shared a like for a certain kind of music or jams that were happening with each other.”
Curtis says that no discussions ever took place to steer or define the band. They all felt that would be counterproductive and could only limit their “view and scope of what’s possible.” That, he says, “wasn’t on any of our agendas.”
The band has no intention of letting the record stunt any further growth or to impose any restrictions on further projects, either. “The next record might be all acoustic,” says Curtis. “With accordion and a bass.” And while the band has applied for some 2014 festivals, Curtis says they plan to let things develop – how else – organically.
“We want to let the product do the talking. We want to let people absorb [the record], and see what the reactions are.” He says he’d like to see the band play once or twice a month and, perhaps, do the soundtrack to another movie.
The greatest accomplishment here goes well beyond the notes and the sound. The band has found community in a time when community is hard to find. And they have picked up, from the ashes of the 20th century music industry, opportunities, where others have found dead ends. They are reinventing how music can be made, how bands can exist and thrive, and this is the true gift of this band, well beyond the excellence of the music itself.
The Curtis Mayflower plans to host a CD release party early in 2014 either in Cambridge or Worcester.
Above: A promotional photo for the film “Jailhouse Rock,” depicting singer Elvis Presley. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Tribute bands are not unusual. Every city has theirs, and Worcester is no exception. Bills at The Lucky Dog, Jillian’s and JJ’s in Northborough regularly feature these acts, who perform music inspired by, or slavishly modeled after, a group, an era or a genre. Tributes to the King, Elvis Presley, however, go a step beyond and Elvis impersonating has become a peculiarly American icon just as the original did half a century ago.
Musician cum legendary Vegas Elvis impersonator, Steve Connolly, returns to Worcester on Friday, January 10 for a show at Mechanics Hall, with opening act James Montgomery Blues Band.
So, what makes Elvis Presley the king of tributes? It starts with his legendary place in popular music. The icon, who has sold a whopping total of nearly 208 million certified units (600 million claimed – the most by an individual artist ever, and second only to The Beatles, who have 258 certified/600 million claimed), and who is credited with 20 No. 1 albums and 36 No. 1 singles.
And though Elvis died 36 years ago (August 16, 1977), he is by no means dead. His recordings continue to generate enviable sales and his legacy widespread media attention. In fact, Elvis recordings have reached sales of $35.5 million, according to Soundscan, since 1991.
So, there’s a market here, and Steve Connolly is at the top of it as one of the most successful of all Las Vegas Elvis impersonators, having held a long-term gig at Bally’s Jubilee Theatre, four and a half years and over 4,000 performances at Fitzgerald’s Hotel and Casino, three years at the MGM Grand, one year at the Aladdin Blue Note Café and six months at the Riviera, as well as private functions at just about every casino or hotel you can think of.
While mastering this rarefied craft, Steve has won endless accolades, distinguishing himself as the “Best Elvis in Vegas” for 2006 and 2007, and receiving glowing recommendations from the likes of Steven Tyler and Bill Clinton, and even Elvis’ music director, Bobby Morris.
Guests of this Friday’s show should expect the vital rock ‘n’ roll presence of early Elvis, as well as a series of costume changes that run through highlights like the ’68 Comeback Special, and ‘70s Hawaii. In his recent run in Palm Desert, Connolly, a trained artist, who, by day, paints and restores church ceilings, devoted a portion of the hour-and-a-half show to creating an original Elvis-inspired painting. He hopes to have some of this original artwork on display at the shows.
The Elvis impersonator isn’t a new phenomenon, either. Elvis made such a splash that impersonators began to spring up during the height of his career, the first being in the mid 1950s. Folkie Phil Ochs is thought to be the first performing Elvis impersonator, a historic landmark he achieved when he appeared onstage at Madison Square Garden in March of 1970 wearing an Elvis-inspired gold lamé suit designed by Nudie Cohen. Later, comedian Andy Kaufman would work an Elvis impersonation into his act, and Elvis seemed to have enjoyed these imitations, even venturing out to see Bill Haney perform, though he is reputed to have liked Kaufman’s spoof the best.
The Worcester show will feature a set by the James Montgomery Blues Band, fronted by legendary blues harmonica player, James Montgomery, who has carved out a sizable reputation as a New England performer since the early ‘70s, performing with blues legends, like James Cotton, B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, and John Lee Hooker and rock acts, such as Aerosmith, Mick Jagger, Kid Rock, J. Geils, The Blues Brothers and Gregg Allman.
You can’t see the real Elvis Presley anymore (well, some say you can!), but you can get this startling facsimile and maybe a good fake can take you most of the way there.
Catch Steve Connolly As Elvis: Spirit of the King live on stage Friday, January 10 at Mechanics Hall, 321 Main St., Worcester. Purchase tickets by calling 508-752-0888 or visit
Guitarist/keyboardist Jim Perry says that the name of his band, The Silverbacks, has little to do with the majestic, rare simian, and a lot to do with the gray heads of the band members, most of whom are hitting the six-decade mark and will soon enjoy senior citizen discounts. On first appearance, a bar patron seeing the band, which returns for its monthly gig at Greendale’s in Worcester this Saturday, January 18, might notice little more than their age.
However, it wouldn’t take more than a song or two for that patron to notice something more. If he or she were new in town, this person would hear high-energy, tasteful renditions of mostly classic rock, sprinkled with some blues and r&b, and a healthy dose of a band favorite, John Hiatt. His or her ears would begin to notice that the band was tight as a drum, the vocal harmonies were rich and accurate, the interplay was intuitive and dynamic, and the versions, while hip to the nuances of the original recordings, benefitted from great new arrangements and often featured intense and potent jams that linked seemingly disparate numbers from different genres and decades.
If that patron were from the area, he or she would recognize the lineup of area legends, who have cut their teeth in some of New England’s best bands, have toured the world with international stars, and all of whom, despite 40 or more years of humping gear out to clubs, still smile an awful lot when they perform.
The Silverbacks is an aggregate of remarkable talents – proven talents – who just happen to perform in highly accessible local clubs. And though the band plays all covers, it is much more than merely a general business band. The selections and arrangements give a new life to what could be, in lesser hands, the banal playlist of a classic rock station.
The band, one of numerous projects in which these guys participate, is comprised of Jim Perry and Mike Lynch (lead vocals/harmonica) (both formerly of Albatross), Cliff Goodwin (guitar – American Standard Band, Mitch Chakour, Joe Cocker, Mohegan Sun All-Stars), Deric Dyer (saxophone -Tina Turner, American Standard Band, Farrenheit), Bill MacGillivray (drums – The Firemen, Zonkaraz, Russo Brothers), Glenn DiTomasso (bass).
Photo by Kelly Dolen
That patron, having paid attention back in the day, would know that these guys have cut their teeth on stages all over kingdom come, and came of age during the early 1970s (perhaps the climax of the rock era), a time of tremendous freedom and radio stations willing to play almost anything, regardless of how long or how strange.
The Silverbacks were raised on the excitement of the British Invasion, an electric kick in the pants to a bland pop mainstream that re-introduced American audiences to their own blues traditions.
This bunch of Worcester kids, weaned on the Beatles and Stones, soaked in this peculiar pop explosion and entered maturity listening to Hendrix and Yes and Steely Dan and The Allman Brothers and Led Zeppelin, Jeff Beck, and early Santana. Entrenched in this world, where artists made radical music – and moreover, were paid handsomely for it – they hoped to catch the lightning of fellow bands in the New England scene, like Aerosmith and the J. Geils Band.
Albatross was one such band. Perry, along with Lynch (said, by Perry, to be something of “the Bob Dylan of the local scene” back then) joined guitarist Jerry Martin and his brother, drummer Paul Martin, keyboardist John Bianchi and bassist Bobby Palermo. Formed around 1966, they made a serious run well into the mid ‘70s, when, after the toll of constant performing, managing a band house and several close calls with major labels from LA, the band called it quits.
During those years, though, they were a premiere New England live outfit and recorded a number of well received tracks, including the hit “I Believe in the USA” (a 45-rpm copy of which I still have!). The band played to huge crowds and, as archived footage from a 1974 show at Mechanics Hall demonstrates, played a fiercely high-energy form of progressive rock, with skilled players at every position. They could be mellow and introspective, too, as the Bianchi, Martin composition, “1,000 Universes,” shows. Think complex ‘70s rock, like Styxx and Kansas.
As the decade wore on, members of this group, as well as a host of other members of the scene, fell into a more timeless, focused style: up-tempo rock and r&b marked by James Brown-tight playing and complex, often horn-tinged arrangements.
Flash forward to the new millennium, and two of those band members found each other again in The Silverbacks. That’s where the times find this particular ensemble now. (All members maintain membership in a host of other far flung projects, too.)
The true testament to the inspiration of the period is in how many of this band’s, and the scene’s players have continued to work in music in the area.
Come on out to Greendale’s Pub, 404 West Boylston St., Worcester, on Saturday, January 18 at 9 p.m. to catch this hot act.
Written by Matt Robert
From the September 12, 2013 issue of Worcester Magazine.
My Facebook news feed inundates me with an infinite stream of event listings, highinterest news bytes, memes and photos of, well, everything from a friend’s breakfast to a sustained injury to, well, everything. After a while, I stop noticing anything.
Two weeks ago, however, my eye stopped on a post by a local musician, Michael Thibodeau, who sought a few volunteers for an upcoming show.
Nothing unusual, right?
Except, in this case, he needed 12 people to perform on AM/ FM radios.
Ah, John Cage is back in town, I thought.
The late John Cage is on a short list of 20th century composers – or inventor, as he referred to himself – that embodies everything many love or hate about modern art. The piece in question, “Imaginary Landscape no. 4 (March no. 2 for Twelve Radios),” is just one of hundreds that challenges our old-fashioned notions of what music can or should be. It is also one of four Cage pieces being staged for a centennial celebration of the artist by the Cage and Cardew Society, a Clark University group headed by Thibodeau and Clark Music professor, Matthew Malsky, on Wednesday, September 18 at Nick’s Bar and Restaurant.
The Cage and Cardew Society came together about a decade ago, when Thibodeau and Malsky, his advisor, staged the first “Living Room Concert” (named for the Cage piece performed at that first concert) that featured performances of student compositions by other students as well as avant-garde works, in a “supportive” environment in which to present their “‘outside’ musical ideas,” says Malsky.
The teacher and mentor stayed in touch after graduation, often organizing programs. One recent night, over beers at Nick’s, says Thibodeau, the two began imagining Cage’s works in the intimate, ambient room. “Nick’s is a favorite watering hole and a great supporter of local music,” says Malsky. “It offers the kind of laid-back environment we’re looking for.”
The result is a four selection program, consisting of “Living Room Music” (a multi-movement piece for a percussion and speech quartet that involves making instruments of common household objects), the self-explanatory “Music for Amplifi ed Toy Piano,” the aforementioned “Imaginary Landscape no. 4” and the legendary “4’33”,” a work that has been the object of widespread scorn and ridicule and, for some, living proof of the scam that modern art represents. In fact, the audience howled and jeered at Cage after the inaugural performance of the piece in 1952.
I won’t spoil the fun or surprise for the uninitiated by describing the work (or by attempting to defend it). Another Cage piece currently being performed (yes, currently being performed) helps to suggest the creative world he inhabited. The 1985 “Organ 2/ASLSP” (“As Slow As Possible”) is underway in a chapel in Halberstadt, Germany. The performance, begun on September 5, 2001 (Cage’s 89th birthday), will continue for 639 years and is expected to continue until the year 2640. The first 17 months, for example, represented the opening rest prior to the first tone and a website allows the curious to hear the current tone.
It all probably sounds like hokum to the skeptical, but Cage’s work was rooted in his study of Buddhism and the I Ching, and he devoted himself to the revolutionary concept of incorporating chance into musical composition and performance. Further, in the years since his compositions sent classical audiences into fits, tectonic shifts in the scope of even the most mainstream and bland popular music has meant the adopting and embracing of much that was once avant-garde, like making instruments out of things like turntables, water drops, closed and prepared (manipulated) piano, and even elements of silence and sounds inherent in the performance space and among the crowd.
Malsky says that he and Thibodeau will be involved in every performance and “they may have to play a chair or a radio or something,” but, though “they may be challenging for the audience,” the works are “fairly standard for the performer.”
If this all sounds heady and uptight and overly serious, it isn’t. Thibodeau and Malsky are planning on a night of fun. When asked what we might expect from the show, Thibodeau shrugs off the question and says, “I think we’re all wondering that.” Malsky adds that the format, modeled after Cardew’s 1960’s London “Scratch Orchestra,” intends to bring together “‘musicians’ and those who wouldn’t usually call themselves musicians.”
“The personnel is always open,” Malsky adds. “We’ll fi nd a way for anyone who’s interested to participate. Michael and I are merely instigators.”
I clicked “Going.”
See the Cage and Cardew Society performance at Nick’s Bar and Restaurant, 124 Millbury St., Worcester on Wednesday, September 18 at 8 p.m.