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Play well with others (continued)

ANDREA GILLIS IS AN ANOMALY on the local scene, on at least two counts. The songwriter-heavy Boston circuit has never put much of a premium on interpretive singers, least of all those who interpret other songwriters from Boston. What’s more, Gillis is one of a very small group of local singers (Barrence Whitfield and the Illyrians’ Eric Martin are about the only other obvious examples) who’ve come up through the local rock underground while remaining more of an old-school soul/R&B singer. Throw in the fact that she doubles as the main booking agent at Somerville’s Abbey Lounge — and displays an uncanny ability to get along with practically everybody — and you’ve got a performer who’s pretty much defined her own niche. Her solo debut, Want Another? (on the Gentlemen’s label, which was started by that band), just might be the ultimate Abbey Lounge album. The 10 songs embrace soul, pop, and garage rock plus a bit of singer-songwriter introspection.

And nearly all of the Abbey regulars are represented, either as players or as writers. The Gents’ Ed Valauskas produces; "Skinny Mike" Feudale (Coffin Lids), Evan Shore (Muck & the Mires), Jed Parish, Tony Goddess (ex–Papas Fritas), Emily Grogan, and Natalie Flanagan all contribute songs. (Gillis co-wrote six of the 10.) The players include most of the above plus guitarist Asa Brebner, Dents/Marvels bassist Michelle Paulhus, Rudds singer John Powhida, and the nucleus of Gillis’s last band, the R&B-oriented Red Chord.

It takes a strong personality to stand out in that company, and Gillis has one. The disc shows she has more tricks up her sleeve than just the brassy Joplin-esque approach she favored in Red Chord. (That sound does come out in the final two numbers, which were written with that group’s keyboardist, Andrea Gaudette.) The disc sounds like a party, but it also sounds like a singer hitting her stride. Of the outside contributions, only Feudale’s opening "Used Up" suggests something his regular band would do. Shore’s "Moonlight Eyes" is moodier and less Merseybeat than anything in Muck & the Mires’ sets. Tony Goddess wrote two songs with Gillis, but instead of being flat-out pop, they sound as if they would’ve fit comfortably on garage rock’s bible, the Nuggets box. The standout is Parish’s "Drowning," a tune the Gravel Pit used to do, but they could never pull off a full-fledged soul ballad this well. Gillis’s delivery is all the more effective for her never quite cutting loose; the tension underlines the yearning feel of the tune.

"I think a lot of people consider me someone who mainly sings ballads — those and the ‘tough rock chick’ songs," she notes over a beer at the Abbey. "That’s why I was excited about some of the songs that people gave me, because they’re different. I still love R&B, that’s my favorite, but I was always into a lot more than that — hey, I grew up with my uncles listening to Led Zeppelin. So I wanted to show that I could do anything, and I’m hoping that comes across. But I also didn’t want to be too presumptuous about it. That’s why I didn’t do something like put a picture of me on the cover with a guitar in my hand. I wanted to put the focus on me but not to have it all be about me."

She approached the disc the way she’d approach a good weekend at the Abbey: call up all the players she likes and make a party out of it. "I had the idea of doing it like a Motown record, everybody knows each other and plays together and it’s all incestuous. And with all these people, I love their music, and it’s not always the kind of thing I could write myself. I wanted to do some edgier rock, and I knew that people like the Coffin Lids are really great at that. Same thing with Evan — I wanted a song just like one of his." And in one case, Flanagan’s "Sexy Singer," the song was a bit darker than something she might write herself. "Yeah, she can say things like that really well. The song’s not really about being sexy, more about how men approach you when they see you on stage and how they’ll act a certain way around you. But again, I don’t want to be too presumptuous."

Gillis isn’t the only musician to work regularly at the Abbey, though she may be the best at dancing and running a sound board simultaneously. Is it a struggle to keep her life as a performer separate from her life as a booking agent? "I don’t know if I do separate it. If I’m in a band, that helps me to treat the people who play here with some respect. At least they can see that I’m just like anyone else who comes in looking for a show."

Andrea Gillis and her band play Wednesday nights in November at the Abbey Lounge, 3 Beacon Street in Inman Square, with the Dents and Tony Goddess (playing solo and in her band) set for November 17 and the Coffin Lids and Muck & the Mires doing a pre-Thanksgiving blowout November 24; call (617) 441-9631.

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Issue Date: November 12 - 18, 2004
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