Various Artists: Greetings from Area Code 207, Vol. 1

Digging roots

Charlie Gaylord gathers homegrown talent

For Greetings from Area Code 207, a new compilation disc featuring 19 area artists [this originally ran in the fall of 2000], Charlie Gaylord sheepishly admits that there wasn’t exactly an open casting call. “It was a bunch of people that I knew and liked,” he says. “I had a list of people I wanted on it, and after my list there wasn’t any room left, really.”

He also openly admits that he had the idea for the CD well before it became a benefit effort for the St. Lawrence Arts and Community Center, whose restoration efforts will receive 100 percent of the proceeds from CD sales. “I took the idea from the Homegrown ’CLZ thing,” he says, referring to the run of four CDs featuring local talent released by the now-defunct WCLZ — and no, the all-sports ’CLZ doesn’t count. “They really did a lot for local music. I wanted to keep that tradition going.” So, he pitched the idea of a Homegrown-esque album, with himself as producer, to just about every radio station in town. They all said, “No thanks.”

Then he went to ’MPG, one of the last vestiges of local radio playing local bands. Surely they would be up for the idea. Nah. “They were planning on doing something similar,” says Gaylord, “so they declined.”

However, their loss turned into the St. Lawrence effort’s gain, as St. Lawrence head Deirdre Nice happens to have a show at ’MPG, and “the idea just came up” when Gaylord remembered the successful fundraising effort he participated in with Diesel Doug and the Long Haul Truckers — he plays guitar — at the Portland Yacht Services Building last February. “They helped me out because I didn’t have any money to put into it,” he says, so, paradoxically, those who would eventually benefit started out as benefactors.

But, as it turned out, Gaylord didn’t need much by way of cash. Matt Robbins (King Memphis-track 16) and Pip Walter (The Piners-track 6) donated as much time as anybody needed at their Cape Elizabeth studio, the Track Farm. The bands all donated their songs, and when it came time for mastering the effort, none other than Bob Ludwig and his Gateway mastering took time off from the digital re-mastering of Frampton Comes Alive to polish up the 72 minutes of music Gaylord had put together. So “money wasn’t a real big factor,” he says.

To top things off, the Skinny will be donating their club for the big release party this Saturday that will feature just about every band from the album. Twelve of them, in fact, in an alt-country celebration that will be a blur of 20-minute electric and acoustic sets by Diesel Doug and the Muddy Marsh Ramblers, the Piners and Jerks of Grass, even folksy crooner Carol Noonan, of Knots and Crosses fame.

Of course, if you’re a fan at all of roots music, you won’t care at all about any of that. This is one of the best discs released anywhere, by anybody, this year.

There are some things the discerning fan will recognize. Slaid Cleaves released the opening track, “Last of the V-8s,” on his 1997 Rounder album No Angel Knows, but the choice is a great one, featuring his mellow alto voice, along with Gurf Morlix and Donald Lindley, early Lucinda Williams band members. “Eighteen Wheels of Love” is certainly a Diesel Doug favorite. Included here is a live version, recorded this summer at the Stone Coast Brewery by Lance Vardis’s magic recording truck. And Cindy Bullens’s “Tell Me This Ain’t Love” is a track off her 1993 Blue Lobster CD Action, Action, Action, but, hey, she’s been on the Today show and Conan, so Gaylord was lucky to get anything out of her.

What really stand out, however, are the unreleased gems Gaylord has uncovered. He finally coerced the Jerks into the studio, and with success. Their “Highway Paved with Pain” is resplendent with what makes the Jerks great. Jason Phelps’s high lonesome vocals are backed by solid harmonies, their instruments are apparently played at double-time, and they’re never going to be mistaken for rock stars: They include three tries at getting the song started, and finish up with the phone ringing in the background.

Gaylord has also captured the first Muddy Marsh Ramblers tune, Scott Conley’s wistful “Timberline,” and Jenny Jumpstart’s recording debut, a haunting rendition of Diesel Doug’s “Circles.”

Then there are the coming attractions. The Troubles weigh in with the only pop/rock song on the album, “Get the Money Up,” to be featured on their upcoming Here We Go Again sophomore release. With a mid-’80s Mark Knopfler sensibility, and Joe Brien’s driving vocals, they prove again they’re the best smokey, mean, dirty bar band in town, even if they don’t want to be.

The Piners have some new things in the works as well, with a new album to be released early next year. Word is, “Take the Wheel,” track 6 here, will be the first single. It’s a slow, soulful number, and when guys hear Boo Cowie crooning that she’s “on the prowl for a man who can growl and keep me just a little insane,” they’ll be lining up outside her door.

The album ends with yet another unreleased track, a 1992 demo from Manny Verzosa, “Texas Lasts Forever.” One of the first to pick up the alt-country torch in Portland, Verzosa’s music was saddly never released; he met an untimely end in a tour bus accident with his band the Silos in ’93. It’s a poignant song that drives home the lonesome undercurrent that runs through the entire disc. A fitting close to a memorable album.

Jerks of Grass: Jerks 2K: Live at Big Sound

15 years and counting

A throwback from Jerks of Grass

What’s 15 years? Remember being worried about the Y2k bug? No, I don’t really either.

But I remember walking down the stairs to the Bramhall Pub and encountering a bouncer asking me for two bucks to see Jerks of Grass, along with about 50 other people in the West End of Portland every Thursday night.

What’s remarkable is that you can still do that, although there’s no cover nowadays, the beers cost a bit more, and the dart boards and pool table have been replaced by candles and ambiance. I did it just a couple weeks back. After an inexplicable hiatus where the Bramhall sat vacant, featuring a sojourn to Bayside Bowl and other points, the Jerks are still there.

Well, one Jerk, anyway. Carter Logan, banjo player and sometime dobro player (I’ll always think of him as the former, despite even a go at the fiddle for a little while there), is the only one left. Fiddler John Farrell killed himself in 2003. A few years later, Carter and guitarist Jason Phelps led a palace coup and bassist Tom Jacques and mando player Ronnie Gallant went off and played with some other folks.

And then earlier this year, Phelps left for California, just as he’d done a few years back to hike the Pacific Coast Trail. This time he found himself in LA.

Heck, even fiddler Melissa Bragdon is currently off on maternity leave.

Yet they solider on, Carter joined this week by fiddler Ed Howe, bassist Kris “King” Day, and guitarist Lincoln Meyers. More than capable all. They are still a marvel.

But maybe you want to relive the turn of the century, a time when Jerks of Grass were also playing the Basement, and the Free Street Taverna, and the Old Port Tavern (yep, they used to do that kind of thing there. Kudos to them for outlasting just about everyone). Glad you’ll be, then, to lay your hands on Jerks 2k, the resurrection of a long-lost, 15-year-old recording with Joe Brien at Big Sound they once deemed not good enough to release, finally put out into the wild by Charlie Gaylord’s Cornmeal Records via Bull Moose.

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Seriously. It will baffle you when you hear it. There are more good notes played on this album in 49 minutes than you’ll hear in a dozen sets by just about any other band. This delivers on all the promise of acoustic instrumentation, vibrant and present and with body you can reach out and touch.

Over the years, the Jerks became a legitimately worldclass ensemble. There were times when I wasn’t sure if I was watching a string quartet or a bluegrass band. Which is to say their performances were downright virtuosic.

In 2000, though, they were just an awesome fucking band.

Which means they could sing, too, and it’s great to hear them kick the album off with an a capella intro to “If You Ever Change Your Mind,” a lamenting song with a hop to it that I’ve never heard anyone else play but them. I’m not sure if they wrote it or not. It doesn’t seem to exist on the Internet. [Note: Thanks to Rebecca Minnick for the head’s up: It’s on the Seldom Scene’s Scenic Roots. Find it here.] It’s not the Crystal Gale tune, that’s for sure. Generally, they’ve played traditionals and “covers,” though that’s not the way we think of them in the bluegrass environment (they recorded two of Day’s songs on 2008‘s Come on Home, released as a four-piece in 2008) and I always assumed it was their arrangement of someone else’s piece.

Either way, Farrell’s lead vocal is laser-like, at the high end of his range but never in the falsetto. The Jerks do high and lonesome, but they never arch into that maudlin and piercing tone that so many of the old-timers preferred. They pay homage to Bill Monroe, but they were progressive way before this stringband revolution produced the Brothers and Sons and Medicine Shows, and back in 2000 they still retained most of their original influences in classic rock and pop.

Farrell would tell you he hated bluegrass. And it’s not surprising, considering he played left handed on a standard fiddle, down by his chest, and never went in much for the hard shuffle or aping Kenny Baker. No, he liked a lilting melody.

Just like the waltzing “Before I Met You,” which breaks my heart a little more every time I hear it. Farrell’s fiddle is just so damn serious, with Logan’s banjo flitting around it. The “oooh-ooh” backing vocals are borrowed from the Vandells and Phelps turns in one of his more thoughtful leads, with a G-run that joins with Gallant’s cascading lead like water flowing over ice.

Phelps and Gallant can bring it, too, though, with powerful turns in “Little Liza Jane,” a tune Doc Watson made famous as a singer but is here instrumental, and “Whitewater,” a legendarily difficult piece from Tony Rice and Bela Fleck. And yeah, the Tony Rice and Bela Fleck version is cleaner, but I hope I’m not being too pretentious when I complain that it’s too clean, and that I’d take the Jerks any day. It’s more appealing to dive into something when it’s not just completely otherworldly and seemingly sanitized.

Logan’s top-of-the-fretboard banjo in the second banjo solo is precise, and clear, but it’s also muscular and charged. The banjo-mandolin pairing that closes “Whitewater” and the album as a whole? Just too much. Too much to handle. Absurd. Thrilling. And right on the edge.

Maybe it’s just the warmth of the Big Sound studio. Or the mastering job done by Lance Vardis. Or nostalgia. Or maybe it’s the aesthetic that allowed the Jerks to get away with sweatpants and T-shirts and Jacques’ ‘fro and never giving into that whole bluegrass schtick.

That’s why it’s just so apt that Gaylord has listed one of the songs here as “Nacho Tres.” Yes, that’s the Jerks version of “Natchez Trace” for sure, a song that features best-ever-type performers Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas alongside Rice and Fleck in its original version. “Tres” ain’t nearly that pretty and delicate. Logan’s banjo is resonant and rolling and full of circular notes and Farrell’s fiddle is the smooth and languid carelessness of rebellion as a counterpart. Gallant tops it off with a giddy-up rhythm that morphs into a 4/4 whir of right hand.

The build and crescendo to the finish is truly a treat in person. Do they still pull that out with the new lineup? I doubt Carter would have it any other way. Head down to the Bramhall some Thursday and check it out.