Chris Brokaw strolls into the Paradise looking more tired than usual. Even when he’s at his most alert, a certain weariness clings to him. Back when he was the drummer in the slo-core indie outfit Codeine, one might have written that off as an occupational hazard. But as the lead guitarist in Come, peeling off howling weathers of chords, he also maintained a rumpled composure. Now, as Brokaw comes upon the other members of Clint Conley’s band Consonant, they take him in, smiling. They haven’t seen him in more than a week. After playing guitar with Consonant and drums with the New Year (his band with the Bedhead brothers, Bubba and Matt Kadane) at England’s All Tomorrow’s Parties festival, Brokaw stayed on to play a round of dates accompanying Evan Dando on guitar and opening the shows with his own solo set. He also got into a car accident: he and a friend emerged unharmed, but their rental van, with just 31 miles on it, didn’t fare as well.
In addition to his duties with Consonant and the New Year — not to mention the half-dozen other projects he has on the back burner, including the instrumental groups Pullman and Empty House Collaborative — Brokaw is beginning to explore life without a band. With Empty House leader David Curry, he’s collaborating on a score for Highway Ulysses, an adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey that’s being produced at the American Repertory Theatre next winter by playwright Rinde Eckert and incoming ART director Robert Woodruff. So it’s something of a wonder that he also managed to find the time to record his debut solo album, Red Cities (Atavistic). He’s put together a one-time-only band featuring Matt Kadane, guitarist Milo Jones, former Come drummer Arthur Johnson, and Consonant/Fuzzy bassist Winston Braman for a release party at the Middle East this Saturday, July 6.
Brokaw has been performing solo since 1999, usually mixing both vocal and instrumental songs into his sets, but Red Cities was conceived as an instrumental album. "The record just came to me as a whole," he says, after the other members of Consonant have slipped away. "I guess the whole thing started coming to me about four years ago. I had the songs in my head as instrumental tunes, and I didn’t want them to become Come songs — which is what most of my songs would have been at the time. There were a couple of people who said, ‘Maybe you could put a couple of vocal tunes on it [the album],’ but I was like, ‘I kinda have to leave this as it is.’ " He cites recent shows by Dutch cellist Ernst Reijseger, horn player and jazz innovator Joe McPhee, and acoustic bluesman Chris Smither as having affected his idea of what a solo performance could be: "People who went up on stage with one instrument and just create a whole fucking galaxy. That’s what I’m aspiring to do."
That said, about the only two things that don’t pop up on Red Cities are European free jazz and acoustic blues. "There are songs on the record that I really couldn’t have done with any of the other groups I’ve ever played in. But I also didn’t want to be like, ‘Here’s my solo record, and I can do country music! And I can do rock music! And here’s my avant-garde side!’ I think the whole record makes sense."
The numbers on Red Cities range from the 11-minute meditation "The Fields" to the 49-second mariachi/Jesus Lizard snippet "Wallet Corner." Call them songs without words — which doesn’t mean without subject matter. "The titles are pretty specific. There’s two songs called ‘The Fields.’ And I was thinking specifically about the movie The Killing Fields, about Cambodia, which kind of plays into the title, Red Cities. There are a few songs where I was thinking about different places that had at one point been under Communist rule."
He didn’t, however, stick to that theme vigilantly enough to warrant a concept-album warning sticker. "Calimoxcho," a sangría-like drink popular among Spanish teens, was chosen at least in part because "it’s such a cool word: it’s got an ‘x’ in it." And "Tournament" takes inspiration from a novel of the same name written by Brokaw’s stepfather; a sea-fishing yarn involving a murder and a million-dollar prize, the book was almost made into a movie by Lee Marvin back in the early 1980s. The closer, "At the Crossroads," was, Brokaw says, "the one song on the album that’s kind of slide-guitar based, so that’s kind of an obvious title. ‘Crossroads!’ ‘The Blues!’ Not to be totally corny about it, but I was also thinking, I am at a certain crossroads. I’ve been playing in rock bands for a really long time, and I feel like I know that world pretty well. It’s still fun, but I guess I just wanted to try out different things. It’s possible that I might want to keep making records and going on tour, and there are people that I admire and respect who are doing that in their 50s and 60s and are getting better at it. But I don’t know if that’s something I’m gonna want to do in 20 years, or in 10 years, or in two years. I wanna keep writing and playing. And I would love to try out different ways of doing that besides playing at T.T.’s."
ON THE EVENING OF St. Patrick’s Day in 1999, the day Dropkick Murphys released The Gang’s All Here, Rick Barton was sitting with his bandmates in a dark basement beneath a club on Saint Mark’s Place in New York City, and it came up in conversation that the oldest of his three sons had formed his own rock band. Barton was asked whether he’d discouraged the boy from entering the family business. "Hell, naw," he laughed. "Let him make all the same mistakes his old man made."
By his own admission, Barton has made a few. In the early ’90s he kicked a long-term addiction to drugs and alcohol, but not before his self-destructive tendencies had hastened the break-up of both his first marriage and his first band (the Outlets, formed with his brother David, were contemporaries of Mission of Burma, the Neighborhoods, and Nervous Eaters) and left him broke, homeless, and headed for worse. But by that St. Patrick’s Day at the end of the century, he’d dragged himself back from rock bottom: he owned his own house-painting business, and Dropkick Murphys were Epitaph’s most promising new band. Then in March of 2000, as the Murphys began work on the album that would launch them into the upper echelon of American punk, Barton made what appeared to be another error in judgment: he quit. So much for second chances.
Co-founder Ken Casey had been an old friend: he’d helped Barton quit drinking, and he was the one who turned Barton’s rough song sketches into Dropkicks’ polished anthems. That Casey eventually brought in two guitarists to replace Barton might have been construed as a compliment, but Casey and Barton have not spoken since the split. "I was selfish," Barton says on a warm summer afternoon, sitting on a bench in Central Square in his painting clothes. He’s had time to think things over, he says, and he puts most of the blame for the fallout on his own insecurities, shortsightedness, and inability to communicate. He’d pestered Casey with complaints that he didn’t make enough money to offset what he was losing in painting business while the band were on the road. After convincing himself that he had to make a choice between punk rock and a paint brush, Barton sold his publishing rights and picked the one that felt most like work.
"I had this tremendous fear of financial insecurity," he admits. "I had kids to support. All I was thinking about was, ‘How am I gonna get mine out of this band?’ That’s all I could see. I know that now, but at the time I didn’t realize it. I couldn’t see Kenny’s side of things, how he was putting his whole life into that band. All I saw was, ‘This bastard doesn’t care about me.’ "
Barton left in the middle of the recording of Sing Loud, Sing Proud, but one of the songs that appeared on that album turned out to be a breakthrough for him. His usual method of writing was to send a tape of riffs and chord progressions to Casey, who would write lyrics and arrange the fragments into finished songs. But "The Torch" came to him in a flash; he wrote it beginning to end on a 15-minute bus ride from Quincy to North Weymouth. After 20 years in music, the floodgates opened. Since leaving Dropkick Murphys two years ago, he’s written dozens upon dozens of songs, most of them better than good, several of them great. Last year he began to record them; two weeks ago he finished his third full-length album. He’ll record a fourth later this month; in the manner of his latest musical obsession, Frank Black and the Catholics, it will be done completely live in the studio.
The first album, An American Rock Song, credited to Rick Barton and the Shadow Blasters, was released last month on the local One Way Productions label. (The line-up includes former Amazing Crowns guitarist Greg Burgess and Swinging Steaks pianist James Gambino and bassist Paul Kochanski; of late, Give’s Steve Hart has been handling drums.) Barton’s liner notes preface the disc with a long message about how fear, selfishness, jealousy, and loneliness have "been the guiding forces of my life, causing me to make humiliating and embarrassing mistakes over and over and over and over, hurting many people along the way."
These days, he has a new wife, and perhaps a new life, and is trying to make amends. "When I was 12, I was afraid to go to the junior high-school dance, so I went out in the woods and got drunk. I stopped growing then, mentally. And consequently I’ve run away from anything I’ve had to face ever since. Getting sober doesn’t mean you can suddenly face those fears, because I still don’t. I’m just beginning to face them."
He does it best in his songs, which are often about stubborn men whose pride and conviction have turned into a kind of prison, about broken men who "let nobody in" and run like hell when anyone gets too close. "American Folk Song" is the one that seems most directly about the Murphys’ break-up; it’s also the one that sounds most like a Dropkick Murphys song. It’s clear from An American Rock Song that Barton was at least partly if not wholly responsible for the strain of pop hookery that infected the Murphys’ most memorable tunes. But his songs speak in their own distinct voice, rootsier, sadder, hungrier, with a loose, familiar touch that’s far closer to the Replacements than to Rancid. They’re as often fleshed out with a breath of Hammond organ and a sigh of pedal steel as with gritted teeth and power chords. And in a business where there are few second chances, Rick Barton now has a third.