THE TRUE SPIRIT OF AMERICA
The intimate surroundings of Toast, a new hang in Union Square, mate perfectly with the music of Session Americana. It’s a dark, yet warm and intimate spot—this despite the hard cement floors and low ceilings. The new hot spot has rounded high velvet covered booths and round metallic tables. These tables are in lock step with the table that the band plays around. I’ll explain more about that later on. I met with two members of the group: Ry Cavanaugh (guitar/ vocals) and Billy Beard (drums), out front on an unexpectedly warm winter night. The balance of the band was absent for the interview, but includes Jim Fitting (harmonica), Kimon Kirk (bass), Sean Staples (mandolin), and Dinty Child (multi-instrumentalist). The crew blends all of this instrumentation into a seamless folk and country medley of exactly what their name implies: Americana at it’s finest. It’s as pure as anything I have ever heard—without pretense or too much thinking ahead. As comfortable to hear on a rickety Southern front porch in early June, as it would be on cold February night in Boston in front of a warm crackling fire. We do quick introductions and find a spot in the back of the joint and then settle in for some interesting conversation about the beginnings of Session Americana and what the band has been up to.
Noise: How’d this experiment get started?
Billy: The band started by happenstance really while Ry and I were playing in a band together doing a residency at Toad and there was an open slot at the end of the night and we didn’t know what to do. So, Ry turned to me and said, “I’ve got an idea.” So, he took the mics off of the stand and duct taped them to a little circular café table and taped them down sort of like the spokes on a wheel. Then we sat really close around the table and I just started playing sticks on a wall and we would call out whatever song someone knew and it transformed the bar within about ten minutes into this really intimate, really wonderful setting. So that’s how it all got going. Ry came up with the initial list of people that we wanted to see if we thought that we might want and a list of songs that we wanted to play.
Noise: The first initial night, was it sort of a hootenanny—like anyone could jump up and play?
Billy: It was sort of a cross between the two. We had friends there from our band and some from the other band that was playing.
Ry: It’s never been an open stage. That said, arms have always been open to people who we respect and trust. That night I think it was, Jabe, Jeff Kimball, Jeremy Curtis, and a couple of others that I’m sorry, I can’t remember right now. They weren’t all in bands. It was basically like-minded musicians sitting around and playing songs and when we sort of put the initial line-up together and we rehearsed a couple of times, we just thought; let’s do every Sunday night at Toad—we did that for two years.
Noise: Wow, that’s a long time.
Ry: The great thing was that it evolved and the players evolved and the guests evolved and it became almost an uncontrollable thing for us—for everyone to go every Sunday night—a bit unwieldy for us.
Noise: I can imagine, dedicating every Sunday night to this.
Ry: It just became a big hang and it’s a quiet band—so we moved it down the street to the Lizard. Then that started a whole other philosophy—we did a residency there and we would invite guests each time. We made it a point to invite guests that were outside of out normal comfort zone. So the first guest that we invited was John Powhida.
Noise: He’s definitely not of your world. That’s a cool idea though—did it challenge the band in new ways?
Ry: Yeah, for sure. At the same time we consider him a brother now and I know that he considers us brothers too. We are kindred spirits. It was totally a mutual respect situation too—then again all of the people who have sat in with us have been. It’s been pretty varied too; Bill Janovitz, to Jen Kimball to Patty Griffin.
Noise: That’s a great idea to really open up what you do. How are you able to bring this to people in what is essentially a rock bar?
Billy: Part of this ethos that I’m particularly curious about how this works from a technological standpoint. How did people in the old jazz clubs hear the guitar without amplification? So, what did the audience have to do hear it and what did they have to do to put the music across for people to hear in these gin joints—like how did Billie Holiday play with the Duke Ellington Orchestra and just bust up the place? Those bands were essentially playing in the old Opry format with one microphone in front of the band. The thing was the mix was perfect because the mic was right in front of the singer and the band was all around them.
Ry: I thought that is was cool to rock that way. I mean we could have easily faced out and plugged in. I always thought that from a technological standpoint, it would be great to do things this way and a real challenge.
Billy: The fun thing with the audience was that as soon as we changed that paradigm not only sitting down and looking around at each other as we played, there was something so pure about hearing a person’s voice in the room along with the PA.
Ry: The technological aspect has changed as well from the beginning. It’s evolved, but it’s still all about six people sitting around a table and singing and playing their hearts out and trying to mix ourselves in a way that works for what we can hear. We rarely use monitors, so it’s critical that we get a good mix.
Billy: With our group of singers, the blend of voices is easier to attain without the monitors believe it or not.
Noise: It feels to me like it’s a much more intimate experience than banging it out in loud rock clubs.
Billy: It’s also a little bit voyeuristic and I wasn’t originally convinced that we could move this to bigger spaces, but we recently played the Brattle Theater and people seemed really happy about the show.
Ry: We dressed a little bit more formally than we normally do. When we play at festivals, after a series a groups, whether it’s a punk band or a country group or a folk group, then we come out and sit around a table. People seem to just be shocked.
Noise: Yeah, and it’s literally a table. [laughs]
Billy: Exactly and the table isn’t going anywhere, its part of the band.
Noise: That’s a riot and that’s the part that was just a situation where there happened to be a table there the first time and you put the mics down on it. That’s in the rider.
Billy: Then we get to a place and the table is too big, or worse, square!
Ry: The interesting thing about that ethos of a rock band is that we all come from rock bands. I mean, I’ve played in rock bands forever. The idea of rocking at a low volume is sort of foreign to some. Yet, from the earliest days of rock ’n’ roll people were rocking at a low volume, even Elvis—those guys would rock like a banshee. One of the guys in our band, Jim Fitting, was in Treat Her Right and that was what they were all about. You don’t have to play loud to rock, you just have to rock.
Billy: The fact is that when you are back stage or crunching songs in your bedroom or whatever it is that is the intimate part of making music. That’s when the whole band is sitting around in a circle and really hammering stuff out. That’s exactly what it’s like when we get on stage.
Noise: It seems to me that it’s like bringing the practice space to the stage?
Ry: It sort of is like that or the dressing room when you are warming up for the show.
Noise: I know that you guys do a good chunk of covers based on the type of stuff that you are doing. Tell me a little bit about how you pick the songs that you do.
Billy: This goes back to the basic idea of when we first started a couple of years ago now. It was a different country then and we were just going to war and there was a sense for me that I wanted to find a way to find a new canon in American music, basically and the types of songs that rose up—especially those written by Jim Fitting—were of an historical nature. Culturally we were looking for things right off the bat that felt really good and also hit a really wide swath of Americana, from really, really early blues to jazz and everything in between.
Ry: One thing we wanted to avoid was the obvious stuff; we didn’t want to do anything that people would expect us to do. My whole thing about covers is that if you can sing it and you believe it, it’s your song. You are done.
Noise: Then I guess we’re done.