By Dr. Swig McJigger
Group A: Blue Lobsters; Halley’s comet; the full splendor of the night-blooming cereus. Group B: Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers; any number of elite figure skating pairs; Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell/Kim Weston/Diana Ross. The first set represents rare occurrences, the latter outstanding male/female collaborations.. We can confidently insert Simon Ritt and Kelly Knapp, founders of The Darlings, into both categories. Despite circa two decades of existence, appearances by The Darlings have always been relatively few and far between; despite or because of that (my vote’s on the latter), the country quintet’s an esteemed and decorated outfit.
When a band has as outsized a cachet on our music scene as does The Darlings, settling on a springboard whence to examine its éclat can be a daunting endeavor. Let’s give this narrative a tinge of familiarity by commencing with a trope (which is nonetheless the plain truth, culled directly from the horse’s mouth): Two Midwestern girls, best friends and high school classmates in metropolitan Detroit, shared a taste for music and nightlife that increased the more a local rock scene developed in the precincts of venerable-but-hoary Motown acts. Eventually the gals wanted to experience the ballyhooed living alleged to be found in a coastal conurbation, whereupon they moved to Los Angeles. Now, when one is a fetching lass, the process of making friends is simple (at least, that’s the assumption of this gnarled dude), and among the connections forged by the transplanted duo was Boston alt-rockers The Real Kids; when The ’Kids were preparing to return to the Hub, they suggested to the adventurous fillies that the East Coast burg might be to their liking, and our girls took them up on the tip… and that’s how Kelly Jean Knapp came to Boston.
At roughly the same time, an artistic teen-age fellow was living in Winter Park, Florida, having moved there with his family from the Great White North (specifically, Ottawa); his aspirations were towards drawing and studio art, but a passion for music found him employed in record stores and absorbing sounds—mainly rock—from all corners of the nation. Central Florida had yet to become the mouse-eared empire and bustling tourist destination as we know it today. Consequently for those who sought actually to perform music, venues and opportunities were spotty at best. [This is particularly applicable to would-be rockers in a state where country & western held sway.] Greater Orlando denizens who wanted to shred their guitars in contemporary fashion found it in their best interest to find a home where their progressive tones were more warmly received, among them one Joe Mazzari along with his bandmates in The Daughters; that artistic record-store employee looked up to Joe and acted on his suggestion to give the rock-friendly Northeast a whirl; in the summer of ’80, Simon Ritt relocated to our neck of the woods.
Back to those gals who moved from Michigan to Southern California to Boston: They’d found that hitting the clubs and discovering new groups was all well and good, but why stop there? Kelly and her running buddy from Livonia, MI, Kim Ernst (whose identity I purposefully withheld ’til now ’cause her allure is just like that of the sirens who motivated Odysseus to instruct his shipmates to lash him to the mast and stop up their own ears thence they could continue rowing undistracted… hey, I’m already struggling to crank out this article), along with roommate Michelle Haber and Colleen Kelly, formed The Bristols; along with Salem 66, Boston had its first all-girl rock bands. At first the members’ enthusiasm distinctly outpaced the instrumental prowess, but that same quality they had in spades assured progress was steady in the technical department; the visual appeal of the quartet was an asset from day one (so sue me: That’s show biz). [I had the signal delight of catching The Bristols reunited at a benefit played in mid-June at T.T. the Bear’s; no one can dispute that they fit right in with a powerhouse lineup of the Boston area’s most beloved bands from back in the day…. And they still look marvelous (plus Michelle stood me to a lager)….]
One more jump-cut to the Sunshine State arrival before we achieve unification: Simon was very much toasting his decision to explore more felicitous territory for his life goals; it might’ve been his very first Monday ’round these parts when he caught a triple bill at The Rat; his stunned/delighted reaction: “Wow, this happens seven nights a week?!?!?!?” Before long, Simon was the bassist for The Unattached, a band fronted by Jamie Sever… who happened to be keeping company with Kelly.
One Sunday Simon and his gal Jan were eating brunch at Johnny D’s with Jamie and Kelly when Simon offered somewhat diffidently, “It sure would be nice to sing some country songs sometime…” Little did he know that Kelly would jump at the idea; before long, Simon and Kelly were performing as such (to wit, as “Simon and Kelly”), and not long after that, others wanted in on the fun: Specifically, Boby Bear (drums), Greg Steinbaugh (bass), and Rik Rolski (lead guitar) entered the fold and, early in the ’90s, we had The Darlings. This was a pretty formidable outfit from the get-go, playing original songs that were the envy of twangers Down South and drawing praise locally from the cognoscenti, the ne plus ultra of whom, Brett Milano, once opined of The Darlings’ founders, “It’s the closest you’ll ever get to Johnny Thunders and Patsy Cline singing a duet.”
The Darlings have never been a ubiquitous act, so whenever they do take the stage, the audience is in store for something special. In ’98, Simon surreptitiously entered the band in a talent contest sponsored by distiller Jim Beam, and darned if the Bay Staters didn’t march into Nashville and cop the win (to signs of chagrin from the Dixie-based competitors). Back in the Northeast, moreover in present times, The Darlings maintain their popularity; readers of a Somerville periodical, Scout magazine, voted them best local band (as noted in these pages in the 32nd anniversary issue earlier this fall).
The roster backing up Simon and Kelly at this writing shows Billy Loosigian (reasonable men would agree he belongs in the team photo of New England’s finest pickers) on guitar, dobro, and sitar, Norman Hartley on drums and percussion, and Ed Riemer manning the bass and furnishing vocal support here and there..
Take my advice and enter the following dates on your December calendar: Wednesday the eleventh at Johnny D’s, when The Darlings warm up for Commander Cody and the Modern-day Airmen, and the following Saturday, the 14th, when Simon and Kelly and co. play Radio in Union Square.