Saturday, May 19, 2007

John and Mary at the Night Eagle Cafe

IMG_0307_john_maryLast week I was skimming through the Central New York folk music concert calendar compiled by local folkie Larry Hoyt. I was surprised — and thrilled — to find playing nearby a new incarnation of an old favorite act: John and Mary and the Valkyries.

John is John Lombardo, one of the founding members of 10,000 Maniacs, and co-writer of some of their most groundbreaking songs such as My Mother the War, Tension and Can't Ignore the Train. Having left the band just before they achieved mainstream popularity, John has been referred to as the "Pete Best of Jamestown," referring to another young man who left a band from a working class town before that band achieved notoriety.

IMG_0299_mary_smThe Mary would be, yes, Mary Ramsey, who did some session and touring work on the last two 10,000 Maniacs albums before Natalie Merchant went solo. Both John and Mary rejoined the band after Natalie left, staying for two more albums.

I was a relative latecomer to 10,000 Maniacs fandom, having seen only 4 shows with Natalie Merchant, all of them after John had left. John and Mary were actually the opening act at one of these, at Oswego on 10/21/90; I was on a date with my current wife, who got sick during the Maniacs' set. We had to leave early, but not before I was smitten by John and Mary’s upbeat folkie feel (and totally depressing lyrics). I picked up their first CD Victory Gardens there and it was immediately in constant rotation along with all my Maniacs CDs. It was similar in feel to the first few Maniacs albums; not surprising, since John wrote most of the music in the band's early days. The followup, the Weedkiller's Daughter, was even better.

I was a pretty dedicated John and Mary fan. For example, I once drove from Syracuse to Fredonia and back (round trip, about 6 hours) for a John and Mary show. But as time went on (and kids arrived), my acceptable radius for attending their concerts kept shrinking: the outer limit became Buffalo, then Rochester, then Oswego or Ithaca. By 2001, it became clear the Maniacs weren't going to regain commercial success and the tours stopped happening. I think I saw John and Mary a few more times after that, once at a bar in Syracuse. They put out one more indie album, The Pinwheel Galaxy, but it didn't really grab me. Maybe it was because my musical taste had turned more sharply toward folk -- I saw the Nields open for the Maniacs in Geneva NY and was hooked, and from there discovered Dar Williams, Dave Carter, Ellis Paul and other shining lights of the northeast folk music scene. Mary moved out to California and John and Mary were pretty much history as far as I knew.

Still, The Wishing Chair and The Weedkiller's Daughter remained two of my all-time favorite albums. So now maybe it's easier to understand my excitement at finding out John and Mary had a new group and were working on a new album and would be playing at the new Night Eagle Cafe in Binghamton, only a 90 minute drive away. With a lot happening in my family this weekend it was complicated to arrange, but I managed to get on the road early enough to arrive around 7:30, just in time to catch the end of the soundcheck. I was a little worried that nobody else was there yet, even though that's when the doors were supposed to open. I've been to a few shows where I was a large fraction of the audience; luckily that wasn't the case tonight.

IMG_0276_jerryI was quite pleased to see 10,000 Maniacs' Jerome Augustinyak on drums; Jerry is probably the best drummer I've ever seen, and I've seen some pretty good drummers, including Jerry Marotta, Eddie Hartness (of Eddie from Ohio) and Dave Hower (from the Nields). John saw me waiting outside and gave me a nod of recognition, which made me feel like it had already been worth the hassle of getting there: many musicians have told me they enjoy recognizing a friendly face when they're on the road.

IMG_0248_setlistAfter the soundcheck, John sat and chatted with me for a few minutes before the show started. I never know what to say in these circumstances, I think I muttered something about my oldest kid, the one who at 18 months old danced in a diaper in front of them at the Great Blue Heron Festival, was now 14 and as tall as me. I showed him some family pictures that were still on my camera and listened to him talk about where his life is and the state of live music in Buffalo. I've always enjoyed getting a minute or two with John; he's very friendly and serious and low-key and knows a huge amount about art and music. Listening to him is like auditing a college lecture by a very cool professor. I was disappointed when he said they wouldn't do a lot of their old stuff, but he showed me the set list and there was enough good old stuff there to get me in a very positive frame of mind. As was typical for a John and Mary set, there were a mix of old Maniacs tunes that John co-wrote, John and Mary songs, and a few interesting covers, although missing were the traditional but obscure folk tunes that used to be a John and Mary staple. Also missing were any songs from the forthcoming John and Mary CD; according to John it's 90% done and they're hoping to have it ready for July 4 and the Great Blue Heron festival.

IMG_0303_valkyries_smThe show itself was wonderful. The band was tight, which isn't surprising since in addition to Jerry (who was filling in for drummer Rob Lynch) the band included John's old friends Patrick Kane (lead guitar) and Kent Weber (bass). I can never get enough of Mary's 5-string Zeta; I enjoyed what I got but there was less of her blistering solo work than in some past concerts. And of course, she didn't pick up a guitar (which she plays, though rarely) or accordion (yes, I've seen her play one). I took some crappy video with my Canon PowerShot which I'll share provided you don't take me to task on the lack of visual or aural fidelity.

The first clip is Clare's Scarf, which has an interesting origin: John took a tape of the first song he and Mary wrote together, Piles of Dead Leaves, and played it backwards, and decided he liked the sound enough to make another song of it.

The second clip is Can't Ignore The Train, which is probably my favorite Maniacs song of all time. I shared this with John before the show, which is probably why he dedicated it to me:

Overall, it was a great night out. In a more perfect world, John Lombardo would be much better known than he is. But we don't live in a more perfect world. I'm just thankful that I happen to live in the one with which he and Mary Ramsey have chosen to share their music.


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