by Dr. Swig McJigger
Your humble correspondent commences this article just as Major League Baseball’s A.L. and N.L. championship series get underway, which means the time approaches for those goofy bets between big-city mayors, say, Mumbles Menino putting up a New England clambake against whatever St. Louis considers good eatin’ (something beefy, one presumes). Somewhat along those lines, only and athletic conquest, I believe Massachusetts has made out very well at the expense of Pennsylvania (or “that other commonwealth,” as I like to call it): Consider that for decades the inimitable J.J. Rassler (Philly) has made our area his home base, ditto the Styklunas brothers (Kingston), John on bass (which, chances are, he manufactured himself) and Dan on drums; while I’ve no compunction about looking skyward (or at least in the direction of the Keystone State) and giving thanks for that trio, I’m amenable to constructing a temple to Franc Graham.
Franc arrived in the 617 area code back in the day from rural Bucks County, PA, to enroll at Emerson, where her focus was theater and fine arts; those disciplines are all well and good during one’s college days, but—as we all come to learn—not especially marketable once one leaves academia. Consequently Franc looked to a more practical application of her creativity—graphic design—to make a living in her new home base of Greater Boston. Nevertheless, Euterpe the music muse remained in the background, such that Franc never stopped writing songs and plucking her six-strings as allowed. Now and again she’d secure gigs at the kind of rooms we’re used to looking to as the venues to find musicians who are both skilled and serious about their craft—intimate establishments such as the Lizard Lounge, Toad, and the Plough & Stars—not the type of joints where weekend warriors go to see and be seen. It behooves me to interject that Franc is anything but a stoic performer sternly honing her sound (au contraire, she’s most often beaming as she plays); she recalls with delight her erstwhile side project CWAFA (Cambridge Women’s AntiFolk Alliance), a quartet comprising herself, her sister, Karen Harris (The Vivs) and Barb Brousal, that was a tongue-in-cheek reproof to message-centered songs by and for the querulous.
Then one day it happened: Franc’s telephone rang and when she answered the voice at the other end of the line said, “Franc, this is Lucinda Williams; I’ve heard your music and I think you’d make a good opening act on my upcoming tour.” Franc, in response: “C’mon, who is this really?” We pause here to note that Lucinda Williams is an established icon in the Americana/alt-country sphere. Even if you aren’t well-versed in her oeuvre, if you listen to Car Wheels on a Gravel Road and don’t like it, you don’t like music. (I admit I prefer my friends Lucky 57’s cover of “Pineola” to the original—from a different Lucinda album, but let’s keep that between you and me.) Back to that phone call: Eventually the Nashville artist was able to convince Franc that the caller was indeed the real McCoy (which is of course to say the actual Lucinda Williams), whereupon Franc stated, “I’m in.” There followed whatever sort of logistical arrangements that take place in advance of a national act’s circuit of U.S. stages, and then it was showtime for The Franc Graham Band at the Shubert Theater in New Haven, Connecticut. The date was September 10, 2001.
If you’re reading this, chances are you’re old enough to have memories and opinions on the skyjackings and resultant atrocities that took place on 9/11/01. (I personally believe the terrorists won, given what a hassle it became to enter a big-league sporting event and how miserable it is to pass through an airport.) Imagine if you were a rocker looking at the potential major break of a multiple-Grammy-winner’s imprimatur and all of a sudden it went *POOF*. Happily, Franc Graham is way too upbeat to waste emotional energy stewing over what might’ve been; rather, she went back to her routine of making a living and scratching the musical itch during the moments in between… (When you think about it, most of us tread a similar path, enduring toil and seeking redemptive interludes, only without Franc’s songwriting chops.)
Er, am chagrined to observe I’ve been so busy extolling Franc Graham per se that I’ve neglected my assignment, to wit, The Franc Graham Band; therefore, without further ado, let’s meet the players that complement our heroine: Chris Rival draws first mention because not only does he handle lead guitar duties when The Franc Graham Band plays out, but also ‘cause he engineered and produced the band’s three recordings, It is Good, Sugar Tree, and Steady. Speaking of versatility, Pacey Foster works the turntables, supplies back-up vocals, and plays harmonica. (I opened with a baseball reference, but with football season well underway I can scarcely resist broaching that Bill Belichick too is known for seeking individuals with varied skill sets.) With The Franc Graham Band featuring a “low-rock” sound, one doesn’t begrudge Richard Gates for “only” wielding a bass guitar. Gates’s partner in the rhythm section has lately been Brian Rothwell, who occupies a drum throne previously bearing luminaries Tauras Biskis (let’s stipulate we ALL love Lithuanian percussionists) and Jerome Deupree (one doubts it’s coincidence he’s known for his contribution to seminal bottom-enders Morphine).
In this economy, we’ve all got to scratch for a living, and Franc Graham’s no different; she doesn’t have nearly the time to devote to her music that she’d like, much less telephone booking agents to importune them for gigs. Yet in certain paragons of creativity the afflatus can never be snuffed out, and a resourceful twenty-first-century fox finds herself harnessing her iPhone to record ideas and phrases she’ll later spin into new songs. As well, Franc is at her happiest when she’s performing (shades of that long-ago Emerson theater major, perhaps), so keep abreast of the customary fonts (e.g., the world-famous WMBR club ’n’ concert report) in hopes of catching The Franc Graham Band at the likes of Toad or The Plough. Better yet, check out her website and order yourself a copy of Steady!