Family Band

Phoenicia, NY. 2006 – 2010 or so.

Personnel

Lukas Lerner – drums
Edith Lerner – vocals, guitar, glockenspeil
Nancy Howell – vocals, guitar
Mark Lerner – bass, guitar, vocals

How Not to Raise a Pedal Steel Player (or two)

When my twins, Edith and Lukas, were young (in fact even when they were still in utero) my wife, Nancy, and I used to joke about teaching them both to play pedal steel guitar. First off, it’d be a great act: twin pedal steel players, facing each other on stage! Second of all, they’d always have a job. (I’m not sure if this is really true anymore, but in 1994, there weren’t nearly enough pedal steel players in New York City.)

Once they grew up a bit and started listening to music, though, they seemed pretty genuinely creeped out by country music, so our plan was set aside. But the notion of how to pass on a love of music, and possibly musicanship, to our kids still loomed large. We encouraged them to take up any instrument they were drawn to, but we were very wary of pushing them too hard to practice. There followed a series of false starts. In 1st grade, Lukas took up the cello for a couple of tense weeks; Edith took violin and stuck with it for two years or so, somewhat begrudgingly. Then (5th grade or so) they both wanted guitars. Again, Lukas dropped it pretty quickly. Again, Edith stuck with it for a few years.

Edith with her violin, 2002.

Edith with her violin, 2002

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Uncle Rock and the Playthings

(Adventures in the Kindie Trade, part 1)

Phoenicia, NY, 2008-ish – present

Personnel

Robert Burke Warren aka Uncle Rock – guitar, vocals
Josh Roy Brown – lead guitar
Eric Parker – drums
Katie Legnini – vocals
Martin Keith – bass
Jack Warren, Lucia Legnini – backing vocals, until they grew up
Lukas Lerner – drums (subbing for Eric)
Mark Lerner – bass (subbing for Martin)

Kindie?

My kids never listened to a lot of children’s music. We got them some, and some was given to them as presents, but not much of it really stuck. Raffi’s Baby Beluga album got a lot of play, but I think that was mostly because my wife liked it. They Might Be Giants first kids album, “No,” was a hit with my daughter, but not my son. I remember a really bad reggae kids music cassette and some Sesame Street thing with Aerosmith doing Oscar the Grouch’s “I Love Trash,” both of which pretty much got ignored. A David Grisman and Jerry Garcia kids record was much more of a hit with me than my children.

We certainly never went out to see kids music. That was unthinkable back then. But then the TMBG kids albums happened, and Dan Zanes happened, and soon (too late for my kids) there was a whole “kindie rock” movement, which persists to this day. People take their kids out to see rock and roll, live. I think it’s mostly a good thing.

A Temporary Plaything

My friend Robert Burke Warren has worn a lot of hats (and still does): bassist (with the Fleshtones and RuPaul, among others), actor, songwriter, teacher, writer. But right around the time I moved to Phoenicia, NY (where he lives), he started writing and playing kids music as Uncle Rock (and the Playthings, whenever the venue size and paycheck would support a full band). His regular bass player, Martin Keith, is a busy guy, so eventually I got a call to come sub for him. The band members are all friends and neighbors of mine, and I play in various other groups with them. And, most fun of all for me, my son Lukas has frequently subbed for the drummer, so we’ve gotten to play gigs together. (I’ve also designed two Uncle ROCK CDs and a DVD.)

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Flat Old World

New York City, 1990–1996

Personnel

Mark Lerner – six-string bass, banjo, melodica, vocals
Nancy Lynn Howell – guitar, vocals
Diane Stockwell – violin, mandolin, melodica, vocals
Mark Donato – drums, harmonica, vocals
Bill Fink – guitar, vocals
G. Doug Pierson – tuba, euphonium, concertina, guitar, vocals
Todd Weeks – trumpet, harmonica (until 1992)
Robin Goldwasser – cello, ukulele, melodica, vocals (1992 on)

This one looms large for me (and large for you, dear reader: this post is LONG). Flat Old World was the first band of my very own. Prior to it, I was a sideman or one of a few writers. I am a pretty bossy guy, really, so even when a band isn’t “mine,” I tend to assert myself a lot as an arranger and general loudmouth. Partly this is due to my musical role. Bass: come on. Four strings. Play the root. Duh. But when a song is well arranged, that simple task—playing a simple, grounding part in a groove—sounds really great. So I’ve always tended to offer lots of arrangement advice in any band I play with.

Attentive readers will recall that in 1989, the band I’d been playing with for 2 years, the Oswalds, split up. I found myself wondering if maybe it was time to stop playing music (I was 26). I had always felt that songwriting was the center of a band, but I wasn’t all that keen on it at the time. I could do it, but I knew (and played with) so many writers who were better than me. I’m also not really a virtuosic bassist, but I have my own quirky strengths, I suppose. I started to think that somehow, by basically subtracting songwriting—subtracting pop and rock, really—and focusing on my personal playing style and arranging, I might have some sort of band of my own to offer. I was also eager to play with my new girlfriend, Nancy, who was a great singer.

So I started writing some instrumentals and digging up some old folk songs to mess with. I pictured a very serious, meditative mix of ultra-slow country music like Souled American, chamber jazz like Red Norvo’s band, and the idiosyncratic guitar techniques of Joseph Spence and John Fahey. It was to be my new project. Luckily, reality intervened, and my theories were soon filtered through the sensibilities of a motley assortment of bandmates into something much more musical and fun than my Grand Plan.

Flat Old World in my kitchen, Brooklyn 1994. From left: Mark Lerner, Robin Goldwasser, Diane Stockwell, Bill Fink, Nancy Lynn Howell, Mark Donato, G. Doug Pierson. I’m washing the dishes. Nancy is very pregnant.

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The Catskill 45s

Spring 2009 – current, Phoenicia, NY

Personnel

Tony Fletcher – keyboards, guitar, vocals
Nancy Lynn Howell – vocals
Josh Roy Brown – lead guitar, vocals
Robert Burke Warren – guitar, vocals
Ric Dragon and Eric Parker – drums (2009)
Lukas Lerner – drums (2010 onwards)
Me – bass, vocals

Preface

I moved with my family from New York City to the tiny Catskills town of Phoenicia in the summer of 2005. Among the first and friendliest folks I met were Tony Fletcher, a music writer, and his wife, Posie Strenz. I found Tony through his blog, ijamming (a blog about wine, music, running, and whatever else crosses Tony’s mind), while looking for recommendations of vegetarian places to eat in my new surroundings. Tony and Posie like to throw a good party, and it was at one of those that I met the musician and writer Robert Burke Warren. Coincidentally, I’d worked with Robert’s wife, the writer Holly George-Warren, many years before at Rolling Stone. As the years went by in my new town, my son Lukas took up the drums. His teacher was a local legend named Eric Parker. I started subbing on bass in Robert’s family-music band, Uncle Rock and the Playthings (about which more later), with Eric on drums and a versatile and rootsy guitarist named Josh Roy Brown. Okay, we know most of the players now…

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John Linnell and the Statesmen

Autumn 1999 to Spring 2000

Personnel

John Linnell – vocals, keyboards, accordion
Dan Miller – guitar, keyboards, vocals
Mark Donato – drums, harmonica, vocals
Mark Lerner – bass, vocals

Joined on Conan show by:
Jay Sherman-Godfrey – guitar

Joined at Bowery Ballroom show by:
Wurlitzer 103 Band Organ (Bob Stuhmer, operator)

1. Back Story

This story starts out in late 1989. I took Nancy Howell on our first date, to see the Maudlins. I loved the band, and my friend and fellow former Oswalds member Stephen Lewis had just started playing lap steel with them, so it seemed like a good date idea. The show was at a little secret club in Williamsburg, Brooklyn called the Quiet Life, located on the ground floor of a former funeral home. It was run by WFMU DJ Nick Hill and musician and artist Brian Dewan.

The opener was John Linnell from They Might Be Giants (the keyboard-playing half of what was then a duo), doing a set of his State Songs; he’d been engaged for many years in a project to write a song for every one of the fifty states.

You can see the Quiet Life in the They Might Be Giants video for “The Guitar” (featuring Laura Cantrell on vocals).

A still from the video for TMBG’s “The Guitar,” shot at the Quiet Life, in a former funeral home. The terrazzo floor was very cold. The door at left led to a garage that had a drain in the floor from when they used to do embalming there.

That first date went well, and over the next years, a few things happened:

Nancy and I got married (in a ceremony presided over by Nick Hill). The Quiet Life closed (it didn’t last long), and Nancy and I moved into the ground floor space. Our housemates were Nick and his wife, Alex, and Brian Dewan and John Linnell. When Nancy and I had our children, the former Quiet Life—basically one large room—now housed our bed, two cribs, and my printing press. The freaky taxidermy forms you can see in the photo up there were still on the walls, painted in glow-in-the-dark paint.

2. Recording

Almost 10 years (!) after that first date (we had moved out of Brooklyn to Manhattan), Linnell called me to see if I could play bass on a few songs for a solo record he was making of his State Songs. Mark Donato was tapped to play drums on the recordings, which comprised 4 of the 16 songs on the album. We were both a little confused as to why Linnell wanted us, since he’d really only heard us as a rhythm section in Flat Old World, a rather non-rock, non-pop project. I was intimidated because even though we were pals, Linnell had played with some pretty serious bassists: Graham Maby, Tony Maimone, Danny Weinkaupf. But the recordings went well, and the record came out on Rounder.

State Songs CD cover

I’m not uploading any songs from the actual record here, just live recordings; it’s for sale at the usual places and is well worth your money. It can also be sampled in its entirety via Spotify or Grooveshark. I love this record; it’s so weird, so varied, and yet so cohesive. Linnell’s songwriting is even cleverer when you get inside it as a player: musical themes suddenly fit under one another halfway through a song, narratives unfold elliptically. It’s really fun as a bassist, too. “Oregon” has a bass line that climbs chromatically (and slowly) through all 12 tones. “Idaho” has a big fat pedal tone; certainly on a per-note basis, it’s the most I’ve ever been paid for a recording.

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Clovis Noches

I subbed a few times on bass, mostly in 1991 and 1992, New York City

Personnel

Nancy Lynn Howell – vocals, guitar
G. Doug Pierson – guitar

with a large and revolving cast of members and hired guns, including at various times

Fats Kaplin – accordion, fiddle, and pedal steel
Larry Eagle, Jeremy Dreesen, Ken Meyer, Steve Holley, Robert Bond, Albert Caiati, others – drums
Jeff Myers, Wayne Hammond, Arturo Baguer, Hank Bones, me a few times, others – bass
Alan Goodman – lap steel guitar
Gib Wharton – pedal steel
Ken Pierson – accordion

Clovis Noches: Nancy Lynn Howell and Doug Pierson

These two cowboy hats had been playing in New York City for a couple of years already when, as I described at the end of my Oswalds post, I stumbled onto them at this gig that I attended on a whim with Laura Cantrell:

Clovis Noches Marlboro Talent Roundup

This is the show where I first laid eyes on my wife-to-be.

Here’s what the band sounded like at the time. This recording was produced by the drummer, Robert Bond. [For iPad, iPhone, or other non-Flash-enabled devices, go here.]

“Nine Mile Hill” by Clovis Noches

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