Bethesda, Maryland, 1981-1986
Dan Eilenberg – guitar, vocals
Mark Lerner – bass
Ken “Bidjje” Kavanaugh – drums
Jonathan Lipson – drums
Adam Gibbons – drums
Stephen Lewis – guitar
Billy Simms – guitar
Sam Jannotta – keyboards
Dave Robinowitz – keyboards
Jim Levy – keyboards
I’m going to get so much wrong here. For a variety of reasons many of the details in this entry are very foggy for me. So let me get a few things right, here at the beginning.
Dan Eilenberg taught me more about listening to and playing music than anyone else I’ve ever known. It’s like he’s the imaginary listener for just about any piece of music I write or record. Listening back now to the music we made together as kids I hear a frightening amount of what I think of as me, and realize it came from him. He pushed tons of classic sixties pop music on me (anyone who knows Dan will know that “pushed” is an apt description): The Kinks, the Beatles, the Band, the Byrds, the Temptations, the Supremes, Creedence Clearwater Revival. All stuff that’s pretty much the basis of my musical vocabulary now.
This entry covers 3 or 4 “bands,” but I honestly can’t tell the difference between them. Dan and I started writing songs together in 11th or 12th grade, and we’d play and record them with various folks. None of the bands really played many shows. We just wanted to be world-famous songwriters. So this entry is about our songwriting partnership more than any band.
September – June 2001, New York City
In October 1999, I saw a listing somewhere for a concert by the New York Mandolin Orchestra. On a whim, I went, with my wife and two children. I’ve loved the mandolin since I was a kid and had been playing sporadically since I bought one while I was in the Oswalds. The concert was sort of cool, if rather sparsely attended (my family comprised about half of the audience in the Washington Irving High School auditorium).
The New York Mandolin Orchestra has been around since 1924 (it was originally named the New York Freiheit Mandolin Orchestra). In the Twenties, there was something of a mandolin orchestra craze. I think it’s safe to say the craze has subsided, but the NYMO persists to this day.
At that first show I attended, there were perhaps 20 mandolin, mandola, and mandocello players, They alternated ensemble pieces with solos and duets, but the ensemble stuff was what was coolest. Even though the playing was more than a little spotty (the orchestra is open to anyone who’s willing to come to rehearsals), the sound was really neat. I was without a project of my very own at the time, and was in the middle of listening to and writing more chamber music-ish sort of material. I was eager to try the mandolin orchestra as a way to bone up on my mandolin and reading skills. But as it happened, it was nearly two years before I finally got up the combination of nerve and free time to show up and join the group.
Once a week I’d trudge over to East 15th Street and rehearse. The conductor, a woman named Jennifer Ruffalo, and a few of the players were very good professional musicians. The other players were, well, enthusiastic. I was pretty new to reading music (I hadn’t read treble clef since I was 13), but I found the pace was manageable. There were a lot of little old ladies in the group. I sat between two women with hearing aids. All of the mandocello players reminded me of Walter Matthau.
Consulting some of my notes from back then, I see we did pieces by Scarlatti and Hummel, chamber pieces that had been adapted for mandolin orchestra. We also did an adaption of Cavalleria Rusticana by Mascagni, and an arrangement of “Eine kleine Nachtmusik.”
In addition to the mandolin family, there was a woman who played various flutes and recorders and, incredibly, a pair of smoking hot identical twin young women who both played bassoon.
We played 2 concerts I can recall, both in the same auditorium where we rehearsed. The group breaks in June for the summer, and I didn’t return in September.
1989 – present, New York City and Ulster County, NY
Mark Donato – vocals, acoustic guitar, harmonica, songwriting, (sometimes drums on records)
Mark Lerner – bass, backing vocals, etc, off and on 1989 – present
Pete Erchick – bass from 1994-ish to 1996?
Stephen Lewis – electric guitar, 1989-1991
Dan Fassett – electric guitar, for a few months in 1991-1992
G. Doug Pierson – electric guitar from 1994-ish to to 2006-ish
Dave Wilkes – drums for a few months of 1990
Allison Horn – drums, 1990-1991
Seth Warnock – drums, 1991 – 2006-ish
Eric Parker – drums, 2008 – present
Diane Stockwell – violin, 1991? to 1994?
Rebecca Weiner Tompkins – violin, 1994
Rob Meador – mandolin from 1996-ish to 2006-ish
John Burdick and Dean Jones – (guitar and piano) working on our new record even as we speak
And various other guests on recordings, including Jim Barbaro (guitar), Al Houghton (guitar and organ), Mike Ralff and Scott McKuen (acoustic bass), Bob Hofnar and Jonathan Gregg (pedal steel), Robin Goldwasser (vocals), and Philippa Thompson (accordion and vocals).
I’ve played music with this Donato fellow for 25 years. There’s a strong temptation when writing these things, to pitch the music to you, dear reader. That is, to select the very best stuff and to order the post so as to take maximum advantage of your understandably short attention span, and leave you thinking, “Whoa, that band was great! Mark is cool!” Nowhere is this temptation stronger than in writing about Mark Donato, whose singular talents as a songwriter and singer have gone, in my opinion, criminally underappreciated, at least insofar as appreciation can be measured by album sales and crowds at gigs. (Though there have been plenty of both at times.)
But my job here (I guess I’m my own boss) is not to promote music. As a musician, I have to spend far too much time doing that anyway; my task here is more narrative in nature. So this will be a typical Every Band story: embarrassing videos, clip-art xeroxed flyers, wobbly demos, and faulty memories. Readers unfamiliar with Mark Donato’s music will of course find some here; I encourage you to seek out more.
Canoeful of Strangers
Mark Donato was the first drummer for the Oswalds, but from the day we met him, he was also playing guitar and singing his own songs. I was a big fan immediately, and throughout 1988 and 1989, Mark would often come over to my apartment and record his songs. The tapes are a testament to Donato’s patience. I was always trying to do something weird with my small home recording setup, so the recordings have all kinds of backwards reverb and phase-shifted dulcimer and whatever other nonsense I could conjure. Watching Donato record his vocals became a sort of spectator sport for my roommate Bill Fink and my neighbor Frank Randall (Donato with headphones on, eyes closed, hands writhing in a gentle spastic dance, Keith Jarrett-like vocalizations emerging unbidden between lines). Mark would also sometimes open Oswalds shows with a set of his own songs, especially after he left the band to work more on his own music.
Late 1981, 1982, Bethesda, MD
David Robinowitz – piano
Adam Gibbons – drums
Chris Armacost (probably) – alto sax
Some other dude – tenor sax (update: Comments reveal this to be Joey Gannon)
Mark Lerner – bass
It would be a huge understatement to say that jazz is not my strong suit. I’ve spent much of my life avoiding it and occasionally openly scorning it. The past 5 or 6 years, however, have found me delving into jazz a little bit more (as a listener, not a player). I like the dense, unexpected chords, and I like jazz-like compositions: Alec Wilder, Charles Mingus, Shostakovich’s Jazz Suite, Astor Piazzolla. I do have problems with long solos (and a bunch of folks basically soloing at the same time) and I’m not a fan of the saxophone. But I try not to parade the limits of my taste as some sort of virtue. It’s good to like things, and trying to find your way into someone’s art is a noble effort, infinitely more valuable than kneejerk dismissal.
All of that said, I’m a little perplexed by this entry in EVERY BAND I’VE EVER BEEN IN. If the cassette tape I have is to be believed (along with some corroboration via email from pianist David Robinowitz), I spent much of my senior year in high school playing in a jazz quintet with the almost supernaturally cliched name Take Five. With the possible exception of the tenor sax player, of whom I have no recollection whatsoever, all of the guys in this group were younger than me. [Ed: see comments] David and Adam were juniors, and Chris was a sophomore. (There’s also a slight chance I’m wrong and Chris wasn’t in this band at all, but I’m 99% sure it was him.)
August 1990, New York City
Frank Randall – guitar
Mark Lerner – mandolin, dulcimer
In 1990, WFMU radio host Nick Hill asked me if I could provide some incidental music for a talk show. I think the station folks had recently gotten a bunch of remote broadcast gear and were eager to put it to a test. The show was to be broadcast live from Caffe Reggio in New York City on August 22, 1990. As it happened, my friend Frank Randall was in town from Minneapolis, so I put him to work. Among his many other talents, Frank has a pleasing fingerpicking style on the guitar. I played mandolin with a dulcimer on my lap, and switched to the dulcimer for some parts of some tunes.
Bethesda, Maryland, 1980-1982
Craig Lapine – guitar, vocals, saxophone *
Jon Lipson – drums **
Stephen Lewis – lead guitar ***
Mark Lerner – bass
* Only once for the saxophone. Bad idea.
** And marimba on a couple of songs
***And drums when Jon played marimba
As I’ve mentioned to in an earlier post, in 10th grade I exchanged my Led Zeppelin and Cream records for the Stiff Records catalog and early records by the likes of Joe Jackson and the Police. I also started playing in the Nitz, formed by Craig Lapine, who was a year ahead of me in school. He seemed very grown up. He’d make a joke I wouldn’t understand and I’d nod and laugh and then look up the words in a dictionary later. Most importantly, Craig wrote his own songs. This required that I figure out something to do on bass, since there was no Bill Wyman or John Paul Jones bass line to copy.
Rounding out the band was my closest friend, Stephen Lewis (also newly escaped from Atlantis), on guitar, and Jon Lipson on drums.
We all chipped in and bought a sparkly blue “tuck and roll” Kustom PA system and parked it in Jon’s parents’ basement where we rehearsed.
New York City, from 1987 or so, off and on for a few years
Amy Allison – vocals, melodica
Rob Meador – acoustic guitar
Simon Heathcote – nylon-string guitar, melodica
At some point, they added
Mark Donato – drums
Mark Lerner – bass
Which didn’t stick long. Then they added
Charlie Shaw – drums
Mark Amft – bass
Stephen Lewis – lap steel
And various other folks trickled in and out. I know Artie Baguer played bass for a while, I subbed on bass now and then, as did Reuben Radding and John Frierson.
The early Maudlins
Amy Allison is, in a low-key, still-needs-a-day-job sort of way, well-known. She’s made quite a few records, had songs covered by other artists, been praised by critics, duetted with Dave Alvin and Elvis Costello (a big fan), and generally enjoyed a lot of respect for her songwriting and her evocative voice.
But when I first met Amy, she was (as a performer) pretty weird. It was 1987. I was living on East 8th Street between Avenues B and C with my roommate and frequent bandmate Bill Fink. I was working at my first job out of college, as an assistant to a horrible boss at a literary agency. I struck up a friendship with another lowly assistant named Frank Randall. He said he played guitar; we both liked Robyn Hitchcock. We made plans to get together and play music. Frank lived on 11th between B and C. Three blocks way, but much nastier. My block was mostly burnt out and abandoned, but strangely safe. His was actively filled with crack dealers.