by Dave Westner
Anyone from out of town who happens to stumble into a Boston bar—be it Atwoods or Toad—when the Tim Gearan Band is playing would immediately think this is the greatest city on earth. Tim has assembled a band of musical heroes, at least to me and to many other local music people. Every Monday night for years, his band (Andy Plaisted on drums, Lou Ulrich on bass, Sean Staples on mandolin, the Cottonmouth Horns—aka Paul Ahlstrand and Scott Aruda on sax and trumpet respectively, and Chris Anzalone on percussion) would play at Toad and there was no better place to be in the city. Some seriously good music was being made, a lot of feel-good songs, or dark ones, good laughs, and some serious chances being taken right on stage – week after entertaining week. A few years back, the band moved to Atwoods Tavern on Friday nights, and Russell Chudnofsky was added as a second guitarist. Playing in open G-tuning, he can fill the musical spectrum in a way that a Hammond B-3 player often does, but he also lets the guitar rip as a guitar should rip from time to time, and the musical journey has continued.
Tim and I had talked about catching up to do this interview over beers or something, but well, we totally slacked off, so instead we decided to do it via e-mail.
Noise: Tell me about how the Toad residency started, and how the Tim Gearan Band lineup came to be… if you just invited people to come down to jam, and the ones that kept coming were the ones that wound up being in the band.
Tim: The details on this stuff is foggy at best, but Billy Beard probably gave us a month of Mondays or something and it just caught on pretty quick, so he saw no reason to switch back to weekly bookings. I was using the Groovasaurus guys (Mike Piehl, Lou Ulrich, and Ryan Claunch, and Goody [David Goodrich] for a while there, too) mostly because they were all good friends who happen to be great players. Paul Ahlstrand was one of the first musicians I played with when I moved here in ’89. It was never an open jam session, although some of those guys did help me host the Sunday Blues Jam at Johnny D’s for a long run many moons ago. I’m thinking we played Mondays at Toad from ’94 or ’95 to 2009. When Mike Piehl went chasing the brass ring out in LA with Expanding Man, Andy Plaisted joined the fray.
Noise: So, how did the Atwoods residence come to be?
Tim: I had met the Bros [Patrick and Ryan] McGee at the Burren where I was playing (and still play with a bunch of misfits) on Sundays. They told me they had purchased the old dive, the Overdraft, and were hoping I could put together a house band; this was May of 2006. I decided to do something more down-home for a while there with Eric Royer, Steve Sadler, and Mike Piehl. That lasted three years when I moved the Toad band to Atwoods in ’09.
Noise: How long were you out on the road with TL Washington? Did you also tour with other folks?
Tim: Toni kept us really busy for about 10 years. We traveled all over Europe and the states (mostly east of the Mississippi), mostly old school R ’n’ B, soul, and jazz, lots of festivals and clubs. I’ve been on shorter tours here and there as well, but when my kid came into the picture, I lost all motivation to tour. Now, if we drive across the [Charles] river, it’s an epic run.
Noise: What is with your obsession with Bob Seeger (sic)?
Tim: Seeger?! Dude, its Seger! For all that remains holy! Seriously, I have no idea what obsession you’re referring to. I sang “Night Moves” to kick off Session American’s “Seger Sessions” (a play on the Boss’s “Seger Sessions” thing) and I knew it because, for lack of funds, I listened to the radio constantly when I was a kid. That one came on a lot when I was 13, but so did “Three Times a Lady,” and nobody ever asks me about my Lionel Ritchie obsession.
Noise: How is it possible that your band is so good when you guys haven’t had a rehearsal in recent memory, if ever?
Tim: Well, for our little brand of bar music, spontaneity is key. I’d be bored out of my squash if these songs required being hammered into little molds. When you record them, they become static, and that’s great for posterity and all, but who wants to hear the same story told the same way every time? I like detours, even if it means mucking my way through a muddy back road sometimes. Having said that, it’s not like my songs are very progressive structurally, and these guys have amazing ears, so can usually go through the chords once and pretend that’s how we “rehearsed” it. If the song is any good, it goes into some nebulous set list. After 20 years with some of these guys, they know me pretty well when it comes to my musical proclivities.
Noise: How has Q-Division and Ed Valauskas helped you out?
Tim: I had no idea how I was gonna get the (at the time) current batch of songs recorded before we lost interest in them, and Paul introduced me to Ed V, and he made me an offer I couldn’t refuse: Q-Brews at 75 cents a pop [Q-Division has a soda machine with beers for sale in it]. Seriously, Ed’s one of those guys you feel you’ve known your whole life after only a short while, and he was kind enough to make this last record happen in a way that felt very natural. He makes statements without imposing, and I don’t think that’s easy to find in a producer.
Noise: When that dude from Los Lobos was hanging around town, did it make you wonder what the heck he was thinking when he was videotaping your shows?
Tim: Steve Berlin? I don’t know anything about videotaping shows. Jimmy Fitting brought him out to Atwoods, and he was into our thing, and we had a nice conversation.
Noise: Do you have any goals that you’d like to achieve in your career, like a duet with Mariah Carey or something?
Tim: Would I like to do it with Mariah Carey? Maybe 15 years ago. Goals? Nah. I just wanna stay healthy enough to keep playing and writing. I’m pushing 50 now, so there are no delusions, but honestly, I’ve never had starry eyes when it came to success in the business. I just knew I wanted to grow old with music as long as I loved doing it. That way, there is no chance of it “not working out.” I’ve got an addictive personality, too, and just the physical activity of playing is something I need.
Noise: You’re always coming up with new material. Where and when does inspiration hit?
Tim: It’s really just desperation. I wanna bring something new so we don’t get bored. I think the residency thing might have something to do with the stuff I bring to the band. There are familiar faces in a hometown situation, and you wanna give them something new. But I can be lazy about writing, and usually if I just take the time to be quiet and put a pen on a piece of paper, I’ll get in that zone where at least there’s a chance something might materialize. I tend not to bring out the stuff that happens on a heavier emotional level. There’s lots of those that are just too personal, and it would take more Makers Mark than would be healthy to play them on a Friday night – maybe a Tuesday at Passim. Other than that, I always keep the notebook by the bed for those—just about to fall asleep—in between consciousness and the abyss—song lyric possibilities.
Noise: What’s the most ridiculous story that comes to mind when you think back on the last almost two decades of doing the Tim Gearan Band residencies at either TOAD or Atwoods (Sean Staples falling off the stage, Lou wearing the Patriots jersey and the wig, the limo ride to the last TOAD gig, etc.)
Tim: Okay… we were up in Rockport, I think… but it was one of those “perfectly nice” afternoons where we’re playing to people enjoying their lime rickeys in the park, and saying things like: “Isn’t this the best lime rickey you’ve ever tasted?” and we’re set to go on at like breakfast time, or 2:30pm to some people. Unbeknownst to me, my horn section (aka the Cottonmouth Horns) discovered the dressing room reserved for local thespians who were to put on a kids and family-approved production of the Sound of Music (plot including WW2 and Catholic components) after we played some nice music in the park. After a couple numbers, Scotty and Paul quietly bop off stage and return without me realizing they’d left at all (alcohol involved). I finish my song to the collective gasp of the audience witnessing a tenor saxophonist wearing full Nazi uniform and a Portuguese trumpet player in a pressed Catholic nun’s attire complete with choreographed dance moves that would’ve made the Spinners blush. Park and festival officials charge the stage waving their hands yelling, “No, No!!!” They didn’t ask us back the next year. No one would’ve blinked in New Orleans.
At this point, the e-mail interview had ended, but I had been talking to Tim over at the Burren one night, and we were talking about some musical thing or another, or show promotion, or television (neither of us can remember), and Tim said to me: “I just want to keep playing and getting better,” so I asked him via e-mail to elaborate on that, and this was his response:
I have no idea what I said about getting better, but try this on. I think in this day of immediate gratification, the idea of ‘slow and steady’ is lost on some people. There is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. There is just the rainbow, and a lot of the time it gets camouflaged in the monotony of our everyday lives. For me, writing a song can expose the details of your average walk to the newsstand. Now, what you read in the paper that day might be brutal and dark, but if you have a gig that night and you move a few hearts and bodies, you’re helping to create a balance that I believe we all strive for. That’s why I do this all the time, and hopefully, in the meantime, I’m getting better at my craft. Also, I have very few other skills. Make that bit about hearts and bodies “hearts and hipbones,” instead. I’m feeling poetic.
You can hear the Tim Gearan Band at Atwoods Tavern every Friday night. Tim also plays with the White Owls at TOAD every Monday, and the front room at the Burren every Sunday night.