January 22, 2010

Make Mine Music

I've been a closet music geek for most of my life.

In grade school, a local high school band stopped by one day for a performance, and a little presentation about music. I wandered home with information about music lessons. My parents, wisely looking ahead to the day my mouth would be full of metal, steered me away from the brasses and the woodwinds. How about a guitar?

So they bought me an inexpensive guitar, and I started guitar lessons with an old guy, Joe Diorio, who appears to have played at some point with Guy Lombardo's band. He was a funny old guy - with a studio in his basement. I rarely if ever practiced, but went to his house once a week and plugged my way through the Mel Bay series under his tutelage. He knew I was not really practicing, but we both kept at it.

I never did catch fire under Mr. Diorio's tutelage - instead my musical metanoia occurred in the back of a 1969 Ford Ranch Wagon, on a family vacation through the Wisconsin Dells. Somewhere on that trip, my fingers figured out how to find the chords without my brain intervening, and my right hand started strumming rhythmically through the chord changes. Against all odds, I became a guitarist.

At some point along the line, I started playing guitar at church - in those post-Vatican II days, guitars at Catholic mass were an "in" thing. And so we'd have this wall of (probably probably poorly tuned, in those pre-electronic tuner days) guitars churning out "I Am the Resurrection" and "Here We Are". I continued to play at Mass (in various forms) for the next few decades. High school - where Janet Cavatorta held sway and infused the services with Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, CSNY, and Bob Dylan. I was too nerdy to realize how cool that was. College (a year or so with the WPI Newman society, until I lost interest). Young adulthood, where I was plucked out of the congregation (visibly singing) by the music leader who was to become my spouse. And for a few years at the local Dignity chapter.

Along the way, I started to pick my way into more secular music. I remember in grade school, one of the kids having a Beatle's songbook he wanted me to play from. I had no idea who they were - having no older siblings to initiate me into popular music. My pop music sensibilities started at the Partridge Family and did not get far past Tommy Roe (it's taken me years to not think of Proud Mary as a Tommy Roe song....)

But in high school, I started to play an electric guitar - playing in the pit band for the high school production of Godspell; and then in a late's 70s basement band. We did Cars, Stones, Knack, Zep, Hendrix (I was strictly rhythm, but wunderkind Pete Toupy was pretty amazing on lead). We dubbed ourselves Broken Bones (figuring being close to the Beatles in the record racks was a good thing, and rhythmically similar to Rolling Stones). If I recall, I think the logo had a KISS feel in terms of font) so you get where the influences were.

And although my interests were somewhat divided at the time - math & science geekery, part time work at McDonald's, creative writing - well, music always seemed to be core. When my father died the spring of my senior year in high school, I tucked a guitar pick into his suit pocket in the casket. He was not a musician himself, but he always seemed to take some pleasure in my music and if he was not a band parent, he was always encouraging and generous in terms of lessons, instruments, transportation, etc.

As college rolled around, I fell in with another musical clique, 1/2 of the band Equinox of Westboro MA. Don Montgomery (drummer), and Stan Matthews (guitar and vocals) and I (picking up a bass for the first time). Would get together and jam at a WPI student apartment (Fuller 22, if memory serves) and later on the 3rd floor of the Westboro Package Store building where Stan assembled a small studio with a 4 track reel-to-reel recorder. We had a couple of gigs - a talent show at the WPI Goat's Head Pub (a black and white photo exists which will be graciously not scanned in), a full gig at the Westboro K of C hall (I have the entire thing recorded on cassette!). A graduation party on a flat-bed truck (all I remember is leading us through Jonathon Richman's Roadrunner to a field full of screaming drunk recent grads)

My musical roots grew deeper - Don was a huge Stones fan, Stan adored the Beatles, the Doors and Joy Division. We played all over the classic rock spectrum - the Animals, U2, Clash, Jam, Beatles, Stones, CCR, Neil Young. It was a fun time.

After college, I drifted away from my own music. My spouse was a musician and I kind of dropped out in the way that married couples sometimes distribute interests and responsibilities. But after a brief marriage and separation, I began to pack my old Ibanez acoustic into the car and hit the local open mike circuit. Starting at the Common Ground in Bristol, and ranging all over (Susan's in Granby, Roaring Brook in Canton, Buttonwood Tree in Middletown, Equinox World Cafe in Manchester) I played mostly covers with a few originals. My singing was never particularly noteworthy, and my playing was never more than workmanlike, but I was out there.

And then, 15 years ago or thereabouts, I started to mess with gender. And as my affect began to soften and blur, and the difficulty of moving across the gender divide whilst playing gruff and growly folk music set in, I slowly set down my guitar. I continued to truck it along with me to the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival (I've been volunteering and attending for 18 years or thereabouts), but after a while it never came out of the case, and then for a few years, I stopped bringing it. For many years, I did not even pick up my guitars.

A few years back, having discovered yoga, I went to an evening of chanting called Kirtan. I loved the music, I loved the energy, and when the evening was over I shyly approached the leader, Shankara. "I know you have a guitar player, but if he ever needs a backup or a rest, I play too....." Little did I know that Jeff the guitarist was stepping back from the group, and Shankara was actively looking for a guitarist. And suddenly, I had a gig. Music was back.....

I've played with the kirtan group (not so far removed from my folk mass roots, really) for a few years now - my rather intuitive playing and many years in the folk mass trenches giving me the right skills to sit and play for 2-3 hours straight, to think on my feet, to play with abandon without a particular set list or structured songs. Along the way I've picked up a new guitar (a smaller Ibanez with internal electronics), an instrument amplifier, and an acoustic bass. We're still at it....next Kirtan is Feb 11th....come on down!

And for the past few weeks, I've been rehearsing with a lovely musical duo - Sandy (Vocals) and Dan (guitar) making up the Guinea Pigs (a rather interesting name, dubbed the night they went first at an open mike). They play an eclectic mix of great stuff - Nick Lowe, Simon & Garfunkel, John Prine, Todd Rundgren - along with a good dose of originals. They sound wonderful together, and I'm totally excited to be adding my bass playing to the mix. It's been really fun learning their songs and rehearsing with them - and rediscovering my bass playing chops. (We're looking for a drummer, in case readers play or know someone who does)

They play around a bit - open mics, farmer's markets, clubs, other opportunities. We're doing an open mic slot on Monday up at Union Street Tavern in Windsor. It will be my first time performing publicly like this in many years. I'm excited. Playing music! Hope it sounds as good as it feels!

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