Amy Allison and the Maudlins

New York City, from 1987 or so, off and on for a few years

Personnel

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 Maudlins

The Maudlins, circa 1989: Amy Allison with, from left: Charlie Shaw, Stephen Lewis, Mark Amft, Simon Heathcote, and Rob Meador.

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.

Frank took me along one day to see a band called the Maudlins, whose lead singer was close friends with one of his roommates, Winifred. I don’t remember where the show was, maybe the original Dixon Place, at 1st and 1st; maybe a club called Chameleon on East 6th. The songs were mostly country laments, usually very funny, and delivered by a strange ensemble: Rob Meador played a steady and tasteful rhythm guitar, with careful alternating bass. Simon Heathcote played fills and odd solos with mandolin-like trills on an amped nylon-string guitar. Amy, wearing a different thrift-store prom dress for each show, sang in one of the most deeply nasal voices I’d ever encountered.

Simon didn’t seem to know how to play any chords on the guitar, only single-note lines. And Amy, who wrote most of the songs by herself, didn’t play an instrument. She would just sing them to Rob and Simon, who would try to guess what the chord changes were that she was implying. The whole effect was unlike any other group. Careful, arty, and strange. There was definitely some shtick to the act, but with really solid songwriting underneath it all.

The Maudlins weren’t everybody’s cup of tea. Amy’s voice seemed to split audiences in two, and her Long Island accent and non-country roots (she’s the daughter of jazz pianist, singer, and songwriter Mose Allison, also not an easy musician to pigeonhole) were an affront to some listeners’ cherished notions of authenticity. But they had a devoted audience. I tried not to miss a show.

I sign on

After Frank and Bill and I formed the doomed Cream of Nowhere (about whom more in a future post), I got busy with the Oswalds, who shared quite a few bills with the Maudlins.

Amy was eager to try adding bass and drums to the band, and asked me and then-Oswald drummer Mark Donato to play. I’ve asked Amy, Mark, and Rob Meador, and none of us can remember exactly when this happened or how many shows we did together (maybe just one?). But we all agree that somehow Mark D and I were the first rhythm section to play with the Maudlins, though it was short-lived. One random detail I’ve retained about the experience was borrowing a Meters record from Amy and not giving it back for a long time.

As the Oswalds split up in 1989, Amy took on two more of us as bandmates: Stephen Lewis on lap steel and Charlie Shaw on drums. Mark Amft, from the amazing and odd duo Drink Me, played bass. An early show of this Maudlins lineup is detailed in my earlier post about John Linnell and the Statesmen.

The band became less of a performance art oddity and more of a musical unit. I was an occasional substitute bassist during this time, and I ended up in the studio with the band to record two songs, “You’re Out in the Open” and “Blueberry Pie.” Neither recording saw the light of day. Amy tells me she may have a tape buried somewhere in a box.

Post Maudlins

Amy has gone on to make a lot of really beautiful records (oh, and she learned to play guitar). By all means, visit her website. Her latest, a duet record with David Scott called Turn Like the World Does, is particularly great. An EP from the same sessions includes a new version of the ill-fated “Blueberry Pie,” which I enjoyed hearing more than 20 years after recording it with the Maudlins. The full-band Maudlin days are captured pretty well on a collection called The Maudlin Years, which marked the transition to Amy’s solo career. I played one more show with her a bit later when she was performing under her own name (with Mark Spencer on guitar and Will Rigby on drums) but haven’t had the opportunity to play with her (or see her perform) for many years.

Happily, that is about to change. In an evening seemingly custom-made for readers of this blog, I’ll be joining Frank Randall, Chris Erikson, and Amy Allison at a one-off show at the Rockwood Music Hall in New York City on June 4.

Late breaking news!

Rob Meador has managed to dig up recorded evidence of the original of Blueberry Pie, with me on bass. Enjoy.

 

 

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8 Comments on “Amy Allison and the Maudlins”

  1. Mark, this is one of those tingly-tangly ones that shows how we all made friends and music. So much fun to read as the ancient synapses skitter, spark, fire. A few thoughts come to mind:

    Man, that block really was lousy. The job almost as bad. Thanks for remembering.

    When Amy started playing a melodica in the Maudlins, call me crazy, but I believe she may have kicked off the whole melodica craze that pervades a certain type of Americana to this day. Or maybe that’s just in my own head. I know you’ve jammed the plastic econo yourself, but Amy was the first adult person I’d ever seen play one of those things on purpose.

    Amy managed to somehow combine and celebrate the sentimental heartbreak of country, the fun of 60s girl-group R&B, and 70s bubble gum pop all at the same time. To me, this was nothing short of a miracle. She has gone on to make more sophisticated, more accomplished, more expertly played and produced music (I suppose we all have compared to our early efforts, thank gawd), but at the time it was so exciting to watch a friend finding her voice. She was such a clearly talented nervous wreck. Watching the Maudlins was not only fun, but an inspiration for making up songs, making them better, and them somehow finding the courage to play them in front of other people.

    Lastly: 25 years since that show we went to? Ouch.

    Looking forward to a joyful gathering on June 4.

  2. Mark Lerner says:

    I agree with Frank on all counts above. The melodica, the delightful awkwardness of the trio. Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the whole band were (are) really lovely people. (And Rob Meador will of course show up in other projects on this blog.)

    Even though I had very little photographic evidence and no musical snippets to post for this group, I’m immensely proud of my slender connection to the Maudlins. They hold a spot in my heart, right next to the hardened arteries from all the Leshko’s pierogies that Frank and I ate back then.

  3. I had so much fun subbing in the Maudlins, too. My first gig with them was at Sidewalk. I had almost no prep, just ran through a few tunes with Rob (and Bob Hoffnar, who was my connection to the group). We set up and Amy turns to me and says “what should we start with?” I was dumbfounded. I didn’t know most of the titles. I had no idea what to do. I said, “uh…New York City?” cause it was the only title I could think of. From there on Amy made me pick all the tunes. It was bizzarre. And wonderful. And looking back it was smart. We only played the tunes I knew or really loved the most. I might have played a dozen gigs with them? Probably more like ten. Big fun every time.

  4. Nancy Howell says:

    When ever Amy started singing there would be a buzz in the room, people couldn’t believe her voice. Then it would become hushed and like church! I also loved Amy’s off the cuff comments on her health at the moment regarding cramps, sinus infections, other unmentionables. Fearless and hilarious.

  5. Mark Lerner says:

    Music added! Rob Meador supplied me with a copy of “Blueberry Pie,” which I’ve appended to the end of the post. Very strange for me to hear this for the first time now, 20-some years after playing on it.

  6. Hadley Taylor says:

    (holy cow small world moment. Amy and her family are old friends. I’ve known her since I was a little kid, and used to go see her play as The Maudlins when I was just out of college. I wonder if I saw you guys?)

  7. Hadley, that’s amazing!


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