A look at the winners of this year's Grand Band Slam Contest
By Gary Carra, James Heflin, Chris Kanaracus, Jonathan Keane, Amy Kroin and Michael Manekin
But while our elected representatives are likely to perpetuate the status quo into the next millennium, we at the Advocate are a bit more open-minded about the prospect of change. In fact, with this year's Grand Band Slam we've engaged in a little campaign finance reform of our own -- radically altering the way we conduct this highly anticipated readers' poll.
For the fourth year running, we asked Advocate readers to choose their favorite local musicians in a variety of categories, from best bass player to finest funk band. We added a number of new categories this year -- including best a cappella group and best free jazz/new music ensemble -- to reflect the sheer breadth of the local music scene. And, perhaps most significantly, we broke with the tradition of listing various choices on the ballot in each category; we wanted to be more inclusive, more comprehensive, so we opened it up and provided no options at all.
The result is a glorious mix of familiar and not-so-familiar faces. While there are several repeat winners this year -- including Viva Quetzal, the Big Bad Bollocks and JazzoTree -- there are many more first-time winners. It's clear that the regional music scene, which so many dismiss as a thing of the past, is in fact alive and well, and brimming with energy.
So without further ado, here's a look at those who ranked number one in the hearts (and souls) of Advocate readers:
BootyliciousAn old music-industry maxim is that cover bands usually make more, and play out more often, than original acts. This theory has certainly borne out for Hartford-based cover outfit Bootylicious, which after just six months of playing is getting booked all over the region.
Maybe it's that eye-opening name of theirs. Bootylicious bassist Jamie Walker says there was no grand design behind the group's moniker. "We were just looking for something catchy that people would remember," he says.
The group's real selling points, Walker says, are its musical offerings and engaging stage presence. "We do retro '80s pop stuff and modern rock standards," says Walker, whose Bootylicious bandmates include Teresa Rodriguez on lead and background vocals, John Allen on guitar and Dave Thayer on drums.
The folks in Bootylicious know almost 80 tunes, Walker says, and can learn up to five new ones in a single practice session. Recent additions to the set include Shaggy's "Love Me, Love Me" and a number of Blink 182 songs.
Also, Walker says, many modern-rock bands write melodically simplistic, easy-to-memorize tunes. "I grew up learning Van Halen songs that require some technical skill," he says.
Walker says the band is content to perform the music of others. "We've all done original stuff in past bands. But this pays a lot better, and it's a lot of fun."
Brian ChartrandIf you like the kind of band that prides itself on its versatility, look no farther than South Hadley's Flying Lessons. "We're musical chameleons," says guitarist Tak Yamashita. The band sports all kinds of influences, from funk and jazz to Phish and many a stop in between, and with one acoustic guitar and one electric, the palette of sounds is wide.
Like jam bands, Flying Lessons isn't afraid to break out of the usual pop song structure; like non-jam bands, they appreciate the value of a well-written tune. Their solos are always improvised, and the feel of a performance might well be folky in a coffeehouse, loud and fast in a rock club. The important thing, according to singer/acoustic guitarist Brian Chartrand (who also landed top honors in the Male Vocalist category this year), is "keeping a couple of questions [in a song]."
Not surprisingly, even the band's songwriting is largely improvisational. One of the musicians might bring in just a part, and then the whole band collaborates to create a structure from that groove. Chartrand paints on the vocals through a mix of trial and error, improvisation and general undefinable what-have-you: "I'll just kind of ad lib. That often creates just this vague kind of lyrical content."
Flying Lessons coalesced just three years ago with members who went to high school together. They've recently been giving away copies of their latest CD and are hard at work on a follow-up disc.
American RoadhouseAccording to American Roadhouse vocalist and rhythm guitarist Betsy Dawn Williams, real R&B is far removed from the sugary smooth product peddled by a succession of sentimental crooners in the '90s. Honest to goodness R&B doesn't start with Luther Vandross or Mariah Carey, and it sure as hell ain't Shaggy.
"By roots, we mean the beginning of the style, the earliest forms," says Williams. So for Williams and the rest of American Roadhouse -- pianist Jeff Potter, bassist Mark Neveu and lead guitarist Norm Blackwelder (the band is currently in between drummers) -- rhythm and blues refers specifically to the traditions forged by the progenitors of said styles, such as Fats Domino and B.B. King.
Projecting a sound Williams describes at turns as "raw," "unpolished" and "backporch," American Roadhouse fuses elements like swampy New Orleans R&B, rockabilly and the best kind of twist and bop of '50s rock.
Rockin' the Joint!, a compilation of live material and studio tracks, serves up a piping hot pile of juicy, meat-and-potatoes rock and swinging blues. If the raw, unpolished, backporch quality of Rockin' the Joint is any indication, the live setting is where American Roadhouse truly thrives. At every performance, Williams says, the band strives to "evoke the roughest vibe of an old-time jukejoint."
Uncomfortable SilenceBursting upon the region's scene last year with a victory in the "Best New Band" category, Uncomfortable Silence makes the logical progression to "Best Metal Band" in its second year of existence.
While drummer Paul Maiolo is certainly proud of the band's seemingly overnight success, he says that it hasn't come without effort.
"We're certainly appreciative of the honor, and we're only as good as our fans," he says. "But in this business, nobody's going to hold your hand, and the truth is, we worked really hard to distinguish ourselves from the crowd."
Citing more than 75 live performances last year alone, Maiolo and bandmates Chris Lifatinski, Kevin Larefe and Dana Gabriel pride themselves on doing everything within their collective powers to help spread the word about Silence.
Still riding high on the success of last January's Fear The Silence release, the band is working on an EP to shop to record labels early next year.
POST-PUNK & BEYOND
Lost AmericanaLost Americana is navigating musical waters that few bands seem willing to travel these days. The brand of hard-driving, meat-and-potatoes rock Lost Americana serves up is of the sort that ruled the '70s, hid in the '80s, got co-opted by the grunge movement during the early '90s and got relegated to the cut-out bin by the turn of the millennium.
That's not to say that Lost Americana sounds like a retro act. Cuts like "Wake of Oppression" and "Goddess" from their debut CD The Passage (Lo-Am) derive their dirgy sonic underpinnings from old-school metal greats like Black Sabbath but inject the music with a measure of Vedder-esque angst and angular, Tool-like rhythms.
"We're trying to do a modern sound while keeping all our influences, from Black Sabbath all the way up to modern rock," says Lost Americana drummer and co-founder Adam Kolek.
He and his brother Ethan, who plays guitar, formed the band in January 2001. Through a classified ad they found bassist Shamus Hogan and throaty vocalist Todd Campbell.
While the band has had no trouble getting the job done in the studio -- they've already written two-thirds of their second album, Kolek says -- live gigs, particularly in folkie-friendly Northampton, have been somewhat hard to come by. "It's been slow, definitely," Kolek says. "We actually played our first show in Northampton [in mid-July]."
Mimi & DevotionMimi & Devotion may be the Advocate readers' choice for "Best Alternative/Eclectic Band," but don't go mistaking Mimi for Gwen Stefani or Devotion for No Doubt. Mimi Whitcomb & Devotion is most certainly not in the business of alternative-type rock music, and readers, presumably, voted for Mimi with an emphasis on the "eclectic."
In Whitcomb's case, "eclectic" can be pigeonholed as New Age folk-jazz. But there is certainly a lot more going on with Mimi and her Devotion. Imagine a meaningful lite FM and you're part-way there. Now imagine a smoove Anglo folk (along the lines of latterday Fairport Convention), and you're a little more there. Now imagine yourself snuggled in a restful asana, or better yet, tucked inside the womb of an inveterate incense-burner -- and, voila, Mimi & Devotion; you're there, baby.
Actually, Whitcomb likes to call her group a "bouncy bliss band." She comes to music-making inspired by the Indian kirtan tradition, a "vibrational music" designed to steer one toward bliss in meditation. In the kirtan tradition, one sings devotional songs for one's chosen deity, and for Whitcomb, the deity is "the divine mother, in all her forms."
Maybe it's the kirtan, or maybe it's that earthy Pioneer Valley air, but Whitcomb seems to have quite the grasp on replicating the divine in her music. She writes an exquisite melody, carries a fine tune and knows how to accompany her compositions with equally fetching arrangements for flute, sax and keyboards. Originally, Whitcomb assembled her band Devotion to play her music in clubs and other venues like the Harp in Amherst or the People's Pint in Greenfield, but she's currently working with the group on a second album -- so something must be going right.
Ray Mason BandWhen asked how he feels about edging out perennial winner Dar Williams in the singer-songwriter category this year, Ray Mason is customarily modest. "It's flattering to be in that company," he says. "I never think of myself as a singer."
But Mason definitely regards himself as a songwriter. His list of influences and musical heroes numbers in the hundreds, and all the listening he does (Mason started buying records in 1959) shows up in his distinctive brand of pop, or country, or rock, or whatever you feel like calling it. His music has a certain twang, and a comfortable kind of groove that's at once poppy, retro, rural and utterly his own. And maybe Mason doesn't think he's a singer, but all the same, his voice is a dead-on embodiment of his songwriting proclivities, a sincere and bright kind of croon more on-pitch than Dylan's vocals, more earthy than Neil Young's tenor.
Probably the most highly respected musician in the Valley, Mason has been playing his trademark Silvertone guitar since the '60s (though the current Silvertone isn't the same one he started out with). These days, Mason appears, alternately, as a solo act, as the frontman of the Ray Mason Band and as the bassist for the Lonesome Brothers.
So what exactly does Mason like so much about that $20 Silvertone? "It's got two knobs that I kind of like. I like that turquoise finish. It doesn't sound like anything else."
Mason's unpretentious style, and his emphasis on a plain guitar sound and straightforward arrangements and recordings are the product of his long-term commitment to making his own noise, not to mention the confidence borne of being a good songwriter with nothing to hide. He always gives credit where it's due, pointing to the musicians who've helped him make his music, from Jim Weeks to Tom Shay and Jim Armenti.
Mason keeps a busy gigging schedule, so catching him live in support of the new Ray Mason Band CD Three Dollar Man shouldn't be too tough. About all that playing (usually some eight to 12 gigs per month), Mason says he considers himself lucky. "It's a privilege being able to do it. I'll be driving somewhere to play, and I'm thinking how lucky I am to be able to just go somewhere, set up my stuff and play my own music."
Acoustic UnderdogsForget about Deion Sanders or Bo Jackson. How's this for versatility? In three years, Jeff King has been a staple in the GBS winners' circle, nabbing both a "Best Bassist" award and a "Best Groove Rock" title for his work with the now-defunct Schwa.
Now King has won a third title in a third category -- and if that weren't enough, he's also traded his bass for an acoustic guitar.
"I never really knew how to play the guitar aside from a few standard chords until I went cross country last year with my camper," he says. "I'd just sit around the fire some nights with this guitar my brother bought me, and between my fooling around and reading some books, the next thing I knew, I could fingerpick."
As impressive a feat as that is, it seems that King's sister and now bandmate, Melissa, can do him one better.
An undeniably talented singer, Melissa had never touched a stringed instrument until brother Jeff bought her one late last year. These days, you can find brother and sister playing guitars side by side with fellow Doggies Mike Pellerin and Drake Descant.
"It's great having family in the band," King says. "For one thing, if your bandmates are related to you, you stand a much better chance of not breaking up."
In a career that started with the band "playing any room, parking lot or party that would have [it]," this quartet now has no trouble digging up high profile gigs or rave reviews. Look for them next at the Tribal Vision Festival at the Northampton Airport Aug. 16-18 and Naismith's in Springfield Aug. 22.
A CAPPELLA GROUP
Amherst College DQThe Amherst College DQ was born in 1927, two years before the stock market first went belly-up. Originally an eight-man ensemble specializing in barbershop tunes, the DQ sang many a jazzy melody for decades -- until the group disbanded in 1966 after two of its leading members dropped out of school.
The group was resurrected in 1985, and went through another sea change a decade later when it became the only secular coed a cappella group on campus. Known for its playful and energetic performances, the DQ performs a decidedly eclectic range of material these days. Its current repertoire encompasses everything from rock to jazz standards to novelty tunes; recent albums featured, among other ditties, "Button Up Your Overcoat," the George Michael hit "Freedom" and "Rubber Duckie" (yes, the ode to a bathtime pal traditionally sung by Sesame Street's Ernie). The DQ's set list also includes songs by They Might Be Giants, the Beach Boys, Weezer, Coolio, Duran Duran, Jerome Kern and -- yes, it's true -- Paula Abdul, who is currently enjoying a career renaissance as the judge with nothing bad to say on Fox's American Idol.
Janet Ryan & Straight Up
Janet RyanThree and a half years ago, a fateful email exchange between vocalist Janet Ryan and guitarist Ray Chaput laid the groundwork for what has since become one of the Valley's most rollicking blues bands: Janet Ryan & Straight Up. Though the lineup has evolved since that first contact between Ryan and Chaput on the information superhighway -- these days, the band also features keyboardist Joe Elliot, percussionist Billy Klock and bassist Dennis LeBeau -- the energy that has defined Straight Up since its early days hasn't waned one iota.
"We'll play 30 songs in three hours," says Ryan. "It's a real workout."
Collectively, Ryan says, the band has been in the business for about a "zillion years" (give or take a millennium). "We've all played private functions, the pop genre, you name it." Drawing on influences ranging from Motown, gospel and funk to soul and old-school blues, Straight Up plays between four and six gigs a month, appearing at venues like Mulino's in Northampton, the People's Pint in Greenfield and Caffeine's in Springfield.
Straight Up's last CD was a mix of originals and covers; its newest disc, Wrapped in Blue, is an all-original release. "We had no specific deadlines for this album, so recording it was like entering a black hole," says Ryan. "We kept going back to tinker."
Ryan shoulders most of the songwriting duties for the band, but she emphasizes that each tune is a collaborative effort. "I come up with the skeleton for a song and the band fleshes it out," she says.
As a vocalist, Ryan is influenced by powerhouse performers like Janis Joplin, Aretha Franklin and Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant. "I'm drawn to people who can express emotion in their vocals," she says. "If you listen to Rod Stewart sing 'Maggie May,' it's clear right away that he has nothing going on vocally; nothing's working on a technical level. But somehow he's able to make a connection with an audience. That's what it's all about."
Straight Up will celebrate the release of Wrapped in Blue at Theodores' on Aug. 24.
Amherst Jazz OrchestraEvery other Monday for the past four years, the members of the Amherst Jazz Orchestra have held court at the Amherst Brewing Company -- all 17 of them.
That's right: The AJO, as its founder, UMass music professor Dave Sporny, refers to it, is the Valley's only working jazz big band. The group is composed of a potent horn section -- five saxophonists, five trumpets and four trombonists -- along with musicians on guitar, bass and drums.
If you've yet to experience the AJO, know one thing: They don't play any swing tunes. "We play things that focus on the music and the soloing," Sporny says. In other words, think Duke Ellington, not Benny Goodman.
Sporny formed the group about nine years ago, hoping to recapture the magic of a similar band he headed while living in Michigan. Most AJO members are full-time musicians. Others are music teachers and a few simply accomplished enthusiasts.
While the AJO is large, it leaves plenty of room at the Amherst Brewing Company for its fans, of which there are surprisingly many, Sporny says. "There's nothing else like this going on. It's very rare that you can walk in and hear this for free. We're all very surprised at the size of the audience."
FREE JAZZ/NEW MUSIC
JazzoTreeRichard Pleasant had been involved in theater for quite a while when he decided to add a musical element to his poetry and storytelling. He started by performing with just a bassist. Then Pleasant met Colin Black while hitchhiking to Amherst. The two were a little unsure of each other at first, but before long Pleasant discovered that Black not only played sax and flute but was interested in participating in the JazzoTree project.
The roster has grown considerably since then, and now includes guitar, drums, percussion, keys and trumpet. Pleasant is the center of attention when the band plays, dancing and reciting atop a major groove, but he places equal emphasis on the rest of the band, which includes Frank Varella, Doug Murray, Theo Moore, Bob Hemingway, Ken LaRoche and Albert Mosley.
Pleasant considers himself not so much a singer as a torchbearer for the African storytelling tradition. JazzoTree's heady percussive jams bring that tradition into exciting new territory.
The band hopes to release a new CD by the end of the year, and they're planning to take their particularly American sound across the pond to the ears of unsuspecting Europeans.
QBefore Q grew a devoted fanbase among Springfield's heavy metal and hard rock set, their performances would go something like this.
"People would come to the shows," lead singer Melissa Benerakis said, "and they wouldn't know what to expect. They'd see me as a chick onstage, and automatically think that we were gonna be a 'female band.'"
What audiences weren't expecting was a band that regularly opens their sets covering the likes of Marilyn Manson and Rob Zombie. Once Q warms up the crowd with the covers, they launch into the originals, and believe us, these songs are a little more outré than most of the metal and hard rock being played in the bars of Western Mass.
"We wanted to break free of the heavy, straight-ahead rock 'n' roll sort of thing, and be a more full-sounding band," Benerakis said.
Judging by their rising attendance -- Q regularly draws between 50 and 100 people at shows -- there are a lot of people out there interested in a little left-of-center metal. The band's influences range from the heavy riffing of Rob Zombie to the heavy aggression of Slipknot to the heavy synthing of Nine Inch Nails.
Interested? In the coming months, Q plan to finish its 11-song debut.
As for the band name, "Q" is not as perplexing as it might seem. Everyone in Q has been kicking around the metal and rock scenes of Western Mass and Connecticut for more than a decade, and they settled on the band name because they wanted to concentrate more on the music than the moniker.
"People think we're Star Trek heads," Benerakis said, referring to the omnipotent Q from Star Trek: The Next Generation. "And no -- we've got nothing to do with that! Nothing wrong with that, but no!"
Gypsy WranglersIf your idea of great dancing involves the Lindy hop rather than the hustle, you need the kind of rhythm that only musicians gigging in the 1930s provided. So kick down the rumble-seat and get ready to swing, hepcat. The Gypsy Wranglers, who perform most Sundays at Amherst's Black Sheep Café, do it up right when they whip out the fiddle, the trombone, the archtop guitar, the trap set and the doghouse bass.
Wrangler accordionist Craig Hollingsworth explains it this way: "We play across quite a range. We try to be a dance band that you might find somewhere in 1937, whether in a Paris sidewalk café or listening to a small combo in New York City."
And what's been swinging lately? Lately, the band has been tightening up its sound, making it, Hollingsworth says, "less raw, more polished."
Hollingsworth says the Wranglers, who've plied their old-fashioned wares around the Valley for a good few years now, have been studying their craft most summers at various workshops. Still, the Gypsy Wranglers disavow the attempt to actually be a 1937 band. "We're not re-creationists," says Hollingsworth. " ... We're more like modern emissaries of the great music of the '30s."
Johnny B & the HornetsJohn Clark, the Advocate readers' choice for "best guitarist" and the founder of Funk 'n' Monk (the Advocate readers' choice for "Best Funk Band"), grew up on jazz, blues, R&B and rock. While Funk 'n' Monk satisfies Clark's jazz and funk leanings, his outfit Johnny B & the Hornets takes care of the blues, rock and R&B.
Since 1984, Johnny B & the Hornets have been a Valley favorite for high-energy soul; these days, most folks know where to go for their Al Green fix. And though the Hornets may be Clark's most commercial endeavor, be forewarned: This is no bar mitzvah band.
Clark and company do play the hits (Stevie Wonder's "Superstition" is a reliable floor-shaker), but the Hornets, which include Clark's musical and life companion Holly Havis (the Advocate readers' choice for "Best Bass Player"), typically dip beyond the standard soul repertoire.
"We don't do the same oldies tunes that all the oldies bands do," Clark said. "I'll play an Otis Redding tune that maybe people haven't heard in a while, or borrow a cool horn line from an old Etta James record for another song. There's a whole wealth of repertoire that's out there and forgotten, and it can be redone in a contemporary fashion and really kick ass."
MaspykeThe Advocate readers' choice for the Valley's best hip-hop backs a group that doesn't even live in the Valley anymore. The hip-hop comes courtesy of Maspyke, and the place of origin -- at least, for the last couple years -- has been the Bronx.
In spite of their exodus to the Big City, Maspyke still consider the Valley their home turf -- and Springfield, their home town. It was here, back in '93, that MCs Tableek and Hanif Jamiyl hooked up with DJ Roddy Rod to form the group. Less than a year later, Maspyke attracted a major label connection with Elektra Records.
In typical hip-hop fashion, the industry experience was more bitter than sweet; Elektra wanted to mold Maspyke into facsimiles of the current hip-hop top 20. So, Maspyke opted out of the deal.
For now, Maspyke is committed to independence. In addition to managing their own tours and business, they release most of their material on their own label, Bukarance Records. The autonomy, incidentally, seems to be working just fine. MasPyke has been featured in leading hip-hop and electronic music magazines like XXL and Urb, and last year, the group's single "Played List" made the top of a few hip-hop charts.
After all these years, the Maspyke style is still a work in progress, but this group is responsible for some top shelf underground hip-hop. MCs Jamiyl and, in particular, Tableek, have firm flows on the mic, and DJ Roddy Rod produces dirty, jazz-inflected beats reminiscent of DJ Premier's early work in Gang Starr.
In a few months, Maspyke will finally drop their long-awaited sophomore release. Tentatively titled S.T.AT.I.C., this newest-latest might well be the one that brings the Pyke to the upper tiers of the hip-hop underground.
Funk 'n' MonkA few years ago, John Clark got a notion. He wanted to perform jazz standards -- swing, bop and the like -- in a funkier fashion.
Clark is also the Advocate readers' choice for "Best Guitarist,"
and the man responsible for Johnny B & the Hornets (the Advocate
readers' choice for "Best R&B"). He launched his newest outfit, Funk
'n' Monk, so he could play the standards he loves and make those standards
make people dance (the "Monk" refers, of course, to Thelonious, and the
funk refers to the funk).
Clark started listening to jazz, blues and R&B in the '60s, and for him, the connections between jazz and funk always felt natural. He remembers how jazz pioneers like Horace Silver and Lee Morgan helped to create the music we now call funk -- bleeding the definitions among jazz, R&B and blues -- and he listened to them the first time around.
Clark, who fronts Funk 'n' Monk with his wife, bassist Holly Havis (the Advocate readers' choice for "Best Bass Player"), has built the band as a five-piece, featuring two horn players. Among the traditional be-boppers the band funks up are Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk (naturally). Funk 'n' Monk also rocks compositions by pioneering funk fusionists like Chick Corea and Wayne Shorter. Where many funksters jam on one chord (over and over and over again ...), Funk 'n' Monk's got stellar chops, and a dizzying harmonic range.
Above all, Funk 'n' Monk never lets the skills interfere with the party. "Sometimes people see a jazz group and think they have to sit and listen," Clark said. "But we get people to dance -- and it's great."
Black RebelsBack in 1994, the Black Rebels began steady-rocking Jah music in the Pioneer Valley. Ever since, the Rebels have proven themselves the undisputed champions of local reggae. And with three albums to their credit and annual headlining spots at many of the country's largest reggae festivals, they have achieved a difficult feat: The Black Rebels have earned a national reputation.
Manou Afrika Selassie founded the Black Rebels in the '80s in his native Senegal. At the time, Selassie was not yet 20. Like a lot of Senegalese kids of his generation, he'd discovered reggae music at an early age. Then, one day, Selassie's sister brought a Bob Marley record home.
"When I hear it," Selassie told the Advocate earlier this year, " I just know, 'This is the music I want to play.'"
Since moving to the Pioneer Valley, Selassie and his brother Dr. Jeunnot have hooked up with Kolpana Devi; their three-way collaboration is at the core of the Rebels' music. The Rebels -- influenced heavily by Senegalese music, in addition to traditional Jewish music and American pop idioms like soul and rock -- cook up a cross-cultural stew. They write songs in five languages, including English, Sanskrit, Creole, French and the Senegalese dialect Wolof.
This past summer, the Rebels have spent much of their time on the reggae festival circuit, but they return to the Valley in early fall to release their latest album, Jam ak Salaam, which in Wolof and Arabic means "peace and more peace."
CottonwoodTaking its name from the poplar with the fine, silky-haired seeds, Cottonwood is a crowd-pleasing country band that wins year after year (after year) in our readers' poll. The band has been a fixture in the local country music scene since 1992, and regularly plays around the region to standing-room-only crowds.
Cottonwood began as a quartet, with two guitarists, a drummer and a fiddler, and later broadened its sound with the addition of a bassist and a pedal steel guitar player. The band has shared stages with the likes of Trisha Yearwood, Billy Ray Cyrus, Kathy Mattea and idol Willie Nelson; they've also opened for country stalwarts like Toby Keith and Travis Tritt. With Dan Whalen and John Corbett sharing songwriting duties, the band draws on influences ranging from jazz to rock to classical (witness the dreamy ballad "Love is a Waltz"). And, better yet, Cottonwood steers clear of super-glossy Nashville studio tricks, reflecting an awareness that true country doesn't come outfitted in gold lamé. See for yourself when Cottonwood plays Celebrate Holyoke later this month.
Lonesome BrothersThe Lonesome Brothers may be lonesome, but their audiences are a good deal more fraternal. These guys aren't one of the best-loved bands in the Valley just because Ray Mason -- the Valley's most venerated rocker -- plays bass. It's more a matter of the actual music -- this is a distinctly different mix of those oft-married cousins, rock and country. You won't hear faux roots angst from these guys; they seem to be, rather, country music fans with a seasoned pop sensibility.
Ray Mason and Jim Armenti have played Valley bars together since 1984, and sometime around late '85, the Lonesome Brothers grew out of a project called the Yankee Rhythm Band. The Brothers began as a guitar/bass duo, and capitalized on the very different sound produced by their instrumental styles.
"We could get away with this sort of Bach invention at solo time," says Armenti. With the structure of a song residing mostly in their heads, the two played (and still play) something more like complementary melodies. When they play "Wipeout" as a duo (they play most gigs with a drummer), the pair pause for the solo drum part, because it's playing in their heads. Most nights, audiences supply the missing beats.
These days, the Lonesomes must not be feeling too lonesome; they just served as the band for klezmer performer Wolf Krakowski's album, and will appear at this year's Transperformance concert as a klezmatic Steppenwolf (Krakowski will take the vocal duties). A new performance on WGBY's Caught in the Act television show will soon hit the airwaves (also airing will be an older performance by a younger Ray Mason). And the Brothers' latest CD, Pony Tales, is due out soon.
Big Bad BollocksJohn Allen sees folk music as the original punk, at least when played with the gusto it truly deserves. Allen got started on the road to Bollockdom early on, what with his northern English/Liverpudlian upbringing. It was in Derbyshire that he learned the ways of the working class English pub, and was inspired by rowdy and drunken performers banging on acoustic guitars.
Then he saw the original folk-punk madmen, the Pogues. "It was like finally seeing a band that put that whole idea together and done it really bloody well," Allen told the Advocate last year. " ... The Pogues really kicked me up the ass."
And ass-kicking has been the goal ever since. After working as a booker for a Northampton club in the '80s, Allen decided to try his own hand as a musician. Though early performances reportedly provoked as much wonder as enjoyment, Allen persisted and finally found the right musical vehicle to realize that dream of kicking audiences up the ass.
The Bollocks, who formed in 1989, fuse Celtic, punk and rockabilly influences with working-class surliness, forging what they refer to as "Celtic-flavored jig-a-billy rock." The band found themselves on the brink of national success in 2000 after they wrote a song for the Mighty Mighty Bosstones, who invited the Bollocks along for the Warped Tour. But in the end, music industry execs overrode the Bosstones.
The Bollocks, undaunted, continue to tear up Valley stages, though the gig schedule has slowed down. Allen is trying his hand at a different sort of solo performance, bringing pieces of a book project to the stage along with his squeezebox. Allen refers to the book as an "expanded narrative" of the material he's drawn on for years of songs: "It rose from the life of a Big Bad Bollock -- an English boy idealizing America, then living here idealizing home." Lest that sound a bit too sedate, please note that the latest addition to this project is the life story of a giant pair of knickers.
Said knickers, bought from a Pakistani street vendor, and outfitted with a skull and crossbones and the legend "Danger: Potholes," served as a stage prop for early Bollocks shows ("they had their own fan base," says Allen). The knickers moldered in Allen's garage for years, made a comeback for the band's 10th anniversary, and ended up in, as Allen put it, "panty Valhalla."
Viva QuetzalTake seven musicians, add some 50 or 60 instruments, and you could get a grand mess. On the other hand, you could get Viva Quetzal, a band of talented musicians who meld styles with grace and skill. The band was started by Peruvians who enlisted the aid of some local musicians of North American heritage. Though the lineup has changed a good bit since the early days, that blending of styles and cultural influences remains the key factor in the band's success.
Sax and flute player Jon Weeks says relations were once tense, with the South American contingent not approving of North American additions to a perfectly coherent tradition. But as the elements of jazz or R&B kept surfacing in solos, everyone ended up liking the intriguing results.
The most recent addition to the Viva Quetzal lineup, Puerto Rican Lorena Garay, makes Viva Quetzal a rare bird indeed, a hybrid of South American and Caribbean rhythms with plenty of jazz-influenced improvisations on top. The band writes most of its own material, but also draws from traditional songs and sounds. Weeks says the band attracts pretty varied audiences: "We've always had a great reaction from all ages -- we've even had mosh pits!"
Recently, Viva Quetzal added a new/old member, Chilean Eugenio Huanca, who left the band for a few years. Weeks says the band's sound has remained largely intact, but the arrangements are getting more complex, and more instrumentals are making the set list.
The band hopes to make a go of its fourth CD, a project that has been on hold for a while thanks to a busy schedule -- Quetzal has played many a festival of late, and even did a turn at Disney's Epcot Center (the band remains mum on whether any animated characters sat in). This week Viva Quetzal will play the Hadley Common on Thursday and the Taste of Northampton on Saturday.
Love BombAccording to Robert Holmes, the founder of Love Bomb, "the only reason you start a cover band is to make money."
Back in the '80s, Holmes played guitar in the Boston New Wave/pop outfit 'Til Tuesday with renowned singer-songwriter Aimee Mann. Holmes may not find Love Bomb as creatively satisfying as writing and playing original music, but for him, it's still a lot of fun.
"We're not using Love Bomb to create our own artistry. We're thinking about what the customer has in mind. So we'll do 'These Boots Are Made for Walking' or 'You Should Be Dancing' by the Bee Gees, and we rip into it, and people love it and they dance."
Love Bomb is one of the most successful cover bands in the Valley. They regularly pack in crowds at venues like the Amherst Brewing Company and the Mole's Eye in Brattleboro; they also do quite a few private functions. Live in concert, Love Bomb can cover everyone from Van Morrison to Frank Sinatra; they love hamming it up, and they especially love hamming up one-hit wonders.
Actually, Love Bomb inherited its name from a one-hit wonder -- a sexy British disco artist named Linsey Depaul, who released a late-period disco record called Love Bomb. The name is an apt fit for a band that Holmes describes as "much more kitschy than angsty."
For Holmes, all the kitsch is worthwhile.
"If I was someone who hired a band for parties, I would hire myself," he said. "I've seen other function bands before, and I'm appalled at how lackadaisical and lightweight their approach to making music is. If you're going to make music, you better put your heart and soul into it."
BelieverMickey Towicz's singing voice is a booming, profoundly nasal force of nature, and people used to tell him that he sounded exactly like Ozzy Osbourne.
Towicz is, actually, a heavy metal musician, and he used to take the Ozzy remarks as quite the compliment. In 1993, Towicz and guitarist John Novak decided to form Believer, an Ozzy tribute band. At first, Believer was formed as a lark. But very quickly, Ozzy began to take over.
See, Towicz was a damn good Ozzy impersonator. He poured buckets of water onto the audience; he stuffed rubber bats in his mouth; he walked about the stage, half-blind, in arthritic baby steps. The man was good, and for the last decade he and his axe-slinger John Novak (aka Randy Rhodes) have only gotten better. Today, a Believer show is a dangerous facsimile of the real thing.
According to bass player David Chirico, Believer's success as a tribute band is due to Ozzy's cross-generational appeal. In addition to a dozen Sabbath songs, Believer performs a wealth of solo material from the '70s, '80s, '90s and, of course, contempo-Ozzy.
Now that Ozzy is once again a household name -- thanks to MTV's The Osbournes -- Believer is bigger than ever. They play for as many as 800 people at some gigs, and though they're based in Mass. -- Towicz lives in North Adams, and Novak lives in Pittsfield -- Believer plays all over New England and tours regularly in the metal-friendly mid-Atlantic.
John ClarkJohn Clark fronts Funk 'n' Monk, which Advocate readers voted "Best Funk Band," and Johnny B. & the Hornets, which Advocate readers voted "Best R&B Band." The man knows funk, the man knows jazz, the man knows many shades of blues music, and he's been at it for a long time.
Clark, who grew up in Amherst, began his musical career on the trumpet. Then the Beatles hit, and immediately, he added guitar to his repertoire. Only, unlike other kids smitten by the rock bug, Clark also fell in love with jazz. His uncle, a jazz musician, introduced him to the music of Miles Davis and jazz guitarist Jim Hall; meanwhile, he learned his own tricks from the Butterfield Blues Band and Jimi Hendrix.
At UMass in the 1960s, Clark studied classical trumpet. On weekends, he played in R&B bands at frat parties. After college, he spent time in New York City, studying with a handful of seasoned pros.
Since returning to Amherst in the late '70s with his wife Holly Havis (the Advocate readers' favorite for "Best Bass Player"), Clark has been busy moving among the jazz, funk, soul, rock and blues he loves. Over the years, he's come to the conclusion that he's more of a jazz player than a rock or R&B player. But he doesn't prefer any one style over the others.
After more than four decades worth of playing, Clark has learned at least one important thing about the art of guitar. "The big thing is not to play too many notes," Clark said. "You learn from the blues. You want to always keep the blues in your playing, and economy is in the name of the blues. A few notes mean a whole lot -- like BB King taught us."
Holly HavisUnder different circumstances, jazz funkateer Holly Havis may well have been a fierce contender in any of our other instrument categories. Havis plays a whopping 20 musical instruments aside from the bass -- including the sitar, the ud, the gamelan and the balophone -- and has some impressive credentials that certify a highly musical mind (a Ph.D. in music from New York University and a masters in ethnomusicology from the University of Washington).
Havis, who began playing piano at age 4, now teaches at the Northampton Community Music Center. In 1990, she hooked up with local rhythm and blues outfit Johnny B. & the Hornets as keyboardist. But when the band had trouble hanging onto a steady bass player, Havis decided to make a switch.
"I'd always wanted to play the bass," says Havis. "It was just the feeling of the bass, the sound ... how it seemed to be the root of the music."
Her latest project, Funk 'n' Monk, is a slightly reshuffled incarnation of Johnny B. & the Hornets that offers jazz standards radically reinterpreted through funk and hip-hop sensibilities. Havis and Co. take the "heads" -- the signature melodies that make jazz standards standard -- from works by Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis, Chick Corea and others, and feed them through the undulating machinery of thwack-happy slap bass and muscular hip-hop back-beats, effectively pushing rhythm into the driver's seat.
One of the first women to have won in a GBS instrument category, Havis hopes her example will inspire others. "I hope this can encourage other women to play, and not just be singers."
Clark SieboldAt 27, Clark Siebold has been drumming -- and listening seriously to jazz -- for half his life. After starting on the snare drum in his junior high band, Siebold got heavy into jazz. Eventually, he graduated with a degree in jazz performance from Westfield State.
Today, jazz is still Siebold's specialty. He may a work full-time day job (teaching drums at Springfield's Falcetti Music), but he also finds time to gig out with the funky jazz quintet Funk 'n' Monk (the Advocate readers' choice for "Best Funk Band") and the swing music specialists in local combo Montenia. In August, Siebold will add yet another project to his busy schedule when the currently defunct jazz-funk-rock-blues outfit Schwa returns to life.
As for his playing, Siebold cites Buddy Rich as a big initial influence, though recently he's been paying a lot of attention to Coltrane collaborator Elvin Jones and funky jazz guitarist John Scofield.
Most importantly, Siebold is more into having fun than perfecting technique.
"It's not about yourself," he said. "It's about connecting with your listener, and that's a big, big lesson I've learned."
Andy Jaffe"It's an honor, but somewhat of an ironic one," says Andy Jaffe of his GBS win in the best keyboardist category. "I mean, off the top of my head, I can think of at least a dozen people around here who play better, and my focus is now and always has been more on composing than on my playing. I can't imagine who voted for me ... did you get any write-in votes from Bratislava or Auckland?"
But let's leave the modesty aside for a moment and let the raw facts do the talking. A professor who's taught at Berklee College of Music, UMass, Amherst College, Tufts University, Smith College, France's Institut Musical de formation Professionelle in Nimes and most recently Williams College, Jaffe is also the author of Jazz Harmony, one of the most influential texts in its field, and a tireless composer who has recorded with, among others, Branford Marsalis, Wallace Rooney, Marvin "Smitty" Smith and Tom McClung.
And, as a master musician who is acutely aware of the free-roaming spirit of sonic exploration, Jaffe is careful to make it clear that music is his business. "I am skeptical of [categorization] ... 'Jazz' and 'classical' are meaningless labels which only serve to facilitate the commodification of the music and which divide musicians unnecessarily."
So, set aside this prose and let Jaffe's work do the talking. In 2003, look for an ensemble release through Master Musicians' Collective Recordings to feature Jaffe compositions as performed by the Bill-Lowe-Andy Jaffe Repertory Big Band and the Slovak Radio Orchestra and Big Band.
Geoff VidalNot the Sri Lankan Nose Flute, not the Hungarian Harpsichord, not the Model T Steam-Powered Synthesizer. Nope, Geoff Vidal earned honors in this category via his mastery of the high frequency brass Phlegmgeneratorious-Maximus ... a.k.a., the tenor saxophone.
"It was very surprising," says Vidal, referring to his unlikely distinction.
It seems that a substantial number of Vidal fans were resourceful enough to improvise and use this as an open category to show support for the musician, thereby circumventing our lack of a sax-specific instrument poll.
Vidal got his start playing alto saxophone in the fourth grade, though he moved on to the tenor sax the following year and has been playing it ever since. Vidal credits UMass -- and music professor Adam Kolker in particular -- with helping him find his unique voice on the instrument. For some time, the UMass senior has been on the scene as a kind of gun-for-hire, lending his talent to such local acts as Funk 'n' Monk, Interplay Jazz and Jazz Trip. He's also an old reliable with the Amherst Jazz Orchestra. Currently, Vidal is channeling his energies into Dime Alone, a Waterbury, Conn.-based fusion project that incorporates jazz, funk and rock sensibilities.
"It's a really loud guitar band," says Vidal, though he frankly acknowledges that the new group has great potential for his own creative development. "I've been so reliant on my sideman gigs that I anticipate that my role in Dime Alone should be pretty interesting. This band's gonna be at the top of my list."