IN THE STUDIO: Rustic settle in.
Yes, Rustic Overtones are back. As all us media-types in town are trumpeting, Portland’s biggest-ever band have begun playing and recording together again, in preparation for a new album to be released with a pair of reunion shows July 28 and 29 at Asylum. That will be their first public appearance since a ginormous goodbye show that half of Portland claims to have seen at a sold-out State Theatre, May 11, 2002.
This is, indeed, a big deal.
Driving up to the Halo, the Westbrook studio where the band are recording five new tracks with Jon Wyman, I’m a little bit disarmed to see the band enjoying the late 7 pm light and playing a passionate game of four-square. I even play, though I never make the fourth square. It’s an animated game, with Spencer Albee, Ryan Zoidis, Jason Ward, Jon Roods, Tony McNaboe, and Headstart!’s Kevin Kennie trading drop shots, forehands (no slams allowed), and polite applause for nice gets.
Walking away from the game to listen in on Dave Gutter laying down an arpeggio guitar part for “Troublesome,” McNaboe says to me, completely earnestly, that the band’s traditional game is a good tonic. It’s gentlemanly and it makes sure the band treat each other with respect. McNaboe bears much responsibility for bringing the seven of them back together again and he can be forgiven if sometimes he seems as happy as a 12-year-old who just found out his parents aren’t getting divorced after all.
In the Halo, which I think refers more to the angel headgear than the Xbox sensation, Wyman is coaxing Gutter through the chorus, which switches to half-time with single-notes, and emerges through chugging chords before finishing with a bright, mocking lick.
“It’s a strange transition,” Wyman allows. Jet-black hair curling at his chin line, Gutter doesn’t let on that there’s any pressure as the game filters into the studio. He shuts the room out with closed eyes and a bobbing head and nails it. Albee wanders in last, beer in hand.
“That guitar’s sounding great,” he says. Albee seems intent on keeping things light and positive: fashioning an “outfit” from a Whole Foods plastic bag at one point. There is a spectrum to view here, from the no-worries antics of the band’s one-time communal house in Gray to the current-day realities of Zoidis and Dave Noyes having to leave around 9 to play a gig at Brian Boru.
“Gotta pay the bills,” Zoidis says simply, when the room complains. The quiet, sparsely bearded Noyes on his way out looks more than a little like Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York, but in a good way.
Also at this end of the spectrum is Gutter, who has a nine-month-old daughter now and is here to work. The three hours I’m there, actually, Gutter is the only one who records anything. After doing the guitar part for “Troublesome,” Wyman loads Albee’s keyboard part for “Light at the End,” like a pump-organ bridge to “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” via USB drive from laptop to hard drive. The room is a good commercial for Apple, actually, with the art of recording turned into a film in fast-forward, new takes and parts taking a tenth of the time they once would have required.
By 10:30, Gutter has done all of his vocal parts for the slow-burning, funked-up “Black Leather Bag” and the Beach Boys-meet-311 “Troublesome,” including three parts on the bridge of the former that I watched the room create out of whole cloth.
Ward, now an elementary-school music teacher with a job that defines him, leans over and asks me asks if I’m familiar with late-career Billie Holiday. I say not really. “Her voice got raspy, but it was still totally on. Gutter’s like that now.” Ward’s right. Gutter’s resonant and powerful, but warmly rough around the edges. No one can make an inhale musical like Gutter.
At one point, he walks over to me during a smoke break with lyrics written out in Sharpie on an unlined piece of white paper and effortlessly sings the three verses of “Dear Mr. President,” about a young soldier in Iraq with a family back home. I tell him it’d make a great a capella piece. Who knows how it will end up.
The band plan to have recording done for these pieces, plus a new recording of old-time live favorite “Rock Like War,” by June 15, adding to that a bunch of never-heard stuff from the Longview Farm recordings that resulted in Viva Nueva!. They’re not sure yet what will be the single they hand-deliver to WCYY the next day. I’m not sure they’re sure yet what this reunion will eventually look like.
Their respective post-Rustic projects — As Fast As, Paranoid Social Club, Seekonk, el Grande, Lettuce, McNaboe’s solo work — are all worthy in their own rights. Does Rustic still equal or outweigh the sum of those parts? Are the old times Roods experiences as Albee wraps his head in a paper bag or cups a fart in his face likely to engender warm feelings for continuing the relationship? Will Ward’s principal let him take personal days for a brief tour of the Atlantic coast?
That all remains to be seen. For the summer of 2007, however, fans of a band who’ve shown me they remain one of contemporary rock’s few true originals can revel in the memories of 1997, when Granny Killam’s was the best club in town and Rustic Overtones were its best draw.
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Sam Pfeifle: firstname.lastname@example.org