Everyone has his own ideas about when and where Session Americana began. For singer/guitarist Ry Cavanaugh, who was the first to put a name to the project as something more than mere musical friends hanging out, it all started during a Camp Street Studio kickoff party in Cambridge hosted by producer Paul Q. Kolderie. Local singer-songwriter Jake Brennan & the Confidence Men were recording their debut full-length, Love & Bombs (Yep Roc), and documenting the festive atmosphere for what would eventually become the Singer Songriot companion DVD.
"I think my idea for Session Americana started at that party when Jimmy [Fitting] sat in with the Benders," Cavanaugh recalls over a coffee mug of red wine, glancing at Fitting to his left. The three of us are seated around a kitchen table inside Hi-N-Dry studios in Cambridge, a few feet from where Session Americana’s new double album, Tabletop People Vol. 1 & Vol. 2 (Hi-N-Dry/Kufala), was recorded. "And then I played a night at Toad with [singer-songwriter] Jabe Beyer and we had nothing to do for the third set after midnight. So I took three microphones and taped ’em to the table and we sat around and played covers.
"I always wanted to have the vibe of an Irish session but have it be American music. At this point, Session Americana has gotten to be much more of a band and the performances have gotten better — the days of throwing tunes around still happens, but when the room’s full, there’s pressure to be good. We try to keep it very open, but we have a core group that know how to listen and talk to each other."
When and where Session Americana (who’ll be playing record-release shows at Club Passim this weekend) took hold may be open to loose interpretation, but of one thing everyone is certain: much in the spirit of Hi-N-Dry, late Morphine leader Mark Sandman’s loft/recording studio that, six years after his death, continues to be a hub of musical inspiration, Session Americana were built on a foundation of camaraderie. It’s a tight-knit community of veteran players whose history cuts a wide swath on the local musical map.
But all roads lead back to Sandman’s long legacy, and Hi-N-Dry itself feels like a living extension of Mark’s considerable creative reach. Two alums of Sandman’s first semi-famous band, Treat Her Right, have just released new albums on the Hi-N-Dry label. Guitarist David Champagne leads the rough-and-tumble Heygoods with his wife, Katie Champagne; their second disc is Fleetwood Skynyrd. Harmonica master Jim Fitting’s swamp-rocking Coots (who include original Morphine drummer Jerome Deupree) also have their sophomore disc out, Pray for Rain. (In the first six months of this year, Hi-N-Dry has produced and released no fewer than seven titles — which makes it one of the busiest local studios and most prolific local imprints.)
Just as Session Americana’s Sunday-night residency at Toad attracted a who’s who of local roots musicians, the list of collaborators who appear on Tabletop People reads like a roots parade. Besides the nucleus of Cavanaugh, Fitting, Sean Staples, Billy Beard, Dinty Child, and Kimon Kirk, more than a dozen artists dropped by to sing, strum, and play, among them Asa Brebner, who tackles a cover of old mate Jonathan Richman’s "Party in the Woods," Dennis Brennan, who opts for the lovely waltz-time standard "Whippoorwill," and Rose Polenzani, who sings her own merry "Merzidotes."
"The record has a great feel because it was different people every night, and the room’s strong point is that it’s got a great look and feel to it," says Fitting, gazing in the direction of the regiment of guitars lining one wall.
The silly ditty "Food Opera," which is sung with great conviction by Laurie Sargent, and Sean Staples’s "Mr. Rabbit" both reflect Cavanaugh’s desire for an album that children could enjoy as much as their parents. "We just opened our ears up and went for whatever came in the room. In the back of my mind is this idea of community, and so to me that was the inspiration for making it for all ages." He concedes that being a new father (he’s married to singer-songwriter Jennifer Kimball, who also appears on the disc) might have had something to do with the impulse: "In a practical sense, yeah! Billy [Beard] and I have babies, so that’s definitely a phase of life we want to embrace. But part of it — God, if you print this I’m dead — is kind of an excuse to get out of the house."
Domestic life in all its messy, romantic, comic splendor fuels the Heygoods’ Fleetwood Skynyrd. David Champagne cringes at the "alt-country" tag that’s trailed the band since the singer/guitarist included Mel Tillis, Doc Pomus, and Felice and Boudleaux Bryant covers on his outfit’s Heygoods debut. But he acknowledges that the grown-up familial themes and spousal harmonies that drive a track like "Doghouse" are a mere tractor-length from a classic George-and-Tammy bust-up.
"To me, the material reflects what married people go through — it’s not what people who are dating go through," he says the night of the Heygoods’ CD-release party at the Lizard Lounge. "There are no ‘I wish she would go out with me’ songs. They’re ‘I wish the kids would fuckin’ leave me alone!’ songs, or ‘I wish my wife would go on vacation!’ songs." He says this with the daring of a man whose wife is backstage, out of earshot. "The subject matter is more like real country in the ’60s or whatever. As soon as you grow up, you realize that life is always gonna be a hassle and that shit’s gonna happen."
Later, Katie Champagne confides that the only realm where being married makes it easier to be in a band is that "when you have to sing into one mike, it’s not a problem." Heygoods drummer Billy Beard says the vibe of the band is "so husband and wife. It is the music, it is the lyrics, it’s the banter on stage, it’s everything, ingrained through and through."
Tabletop People, like Fleetwood Skynyrd, has the homespun feel of a relaxed family reunion where talented relatives keep stopping by. Cavanaugh says, "We would set up, somebody would come in and show us a tune, we’d find a pocket on the first run-through, and the second run-through was the real one. We got a lot of takes that were that second run-through. And there were times when Jim [Fitting] would take a solo that was maybe better on take five, but take six was better overall so" — here Cavanaugh cracks up — "you’re shit outta luck Jim!"
Not much fazes Fitting — nothing, that is, except the Bush administration. Although Pray for Rain has the roadhouse feel and groove of a good-time party record, a pervading acrimony and alienation fueled the songs both he and keyboardist-singer Evan Harriman wrote. The opening "Scoundrel Time" is carried along by a bouncy blues-rock beat reminiscent of the Fabulous Thunderbirds, but its lyrics deliver a snide indictment of right-wing extremists and Republican double talk.
"I have trouble writing love songs," Fitting acknowledges. "What I’m pissed off about is the world, and that’s really what’s driving my emotions. How I find my muse is getting revved up. I think my best stuff addresses what’s going on right now. If you can get the shit on tape and it sounds good, the sky’s the limit."
Cavanaugh too believes there’s a subversive irony in Session Americana’s name, and an implicit political stance in their music. He feels it especially on the few occasions they’ve performed in elementary schools. "When you’re out doing music, it’s the stuff that everybody wants to cut from American society — it doesn’t fit, but it should. There should be music programs for kids in schools because it’s important at that level. I feel any artist should get out there, because in this political climate, music is a critical thing to be doing. America is a lot of things to a lot of people — it’s a great cacophony of culture and ideas, and that to me is really important. The very idea of truth and identity is being shifted as we speak, so let’s remind ourselves that we’re here and we’re Americans."
Session Americana | June 24 at 8 pm + June 25 at 3 + 8 pm | Club Passim, 47 Palmer St, Cambridge | 617.492.7679
Issue Date: June 24 - 30, 2005
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