Band of Changes

Last Monday night Vlams and I went down to Johnny Brenda’s for a night of music headlined by on of my favorite artists Chris Harford with his variable backing super-group the Band of Changes. I have been a big fan of Chris Harford’s music for a long time and saw him for the first time live at John and Peter’s in New Hope many moons ago. I was staying in Lambertville, NJ with my wife at the time and when I told her we were going to see some music she replied, “We are not going to see Ween are we?” I confirmed that we certainly were not and told her everything I knew about Chris and Jon and Peter’s and the my romantic historical knowledge of the Philly area music scene. She pretended to listen and I figured it would be packed so we got there early. When we walked in the only person in the club was Mickey from Ween putting new strings on his guitar, like a professional (“if they are not new they will break”). She snarled as I explained to her that Deaner was in fact in the Band of Changes and that the music was quite different than the Ween catalog. We claimed great real estate at a table in front of the stage and after being there a few minutes Chris came out of the can and said, “What’s up?” I smiled and said, “What’s up!” like greeting an old familiar friend. The opening act that night was American Babies who were awesome and right up her alley. Slowly but surely the club filled up with lots of familiar faces, lots of area musicians, and we had a great night listening to great music in what felt to me like a room full of normal people.

A late night show on a Monday was a stretch for an old geezer like me this week but after mining for excuses to bag it, Vlams convinced me to pick him up and head to the venue at about 9PM. He joked that we were probably so early they weren’t checking tickets yet which was totally on spot. After we spent a few minutes trying to get a beer at an empty bar we were eventually tapped by the door man for tickets which was gratifying since I had actually bought them in advance thinking it might sell out. The band Toy Soldiers was on stage when we got there and they sounded really tight and really good. We rallied upstairs to claim some choice balcony real estate and as I rounded to corner to the steps, Chris stood there in the shadows against the wall. I said, “What’s up!”, and thought how great it was to see him again.

The crowd upstairs was maybe 10 people including the bar tender so we had no problem getting a table with a view. The Oh Pears came on stage next and as open minded and positive I try to be about any and all music, they almost drove us away as the clock rounded 10:30PM. I will admit that a lot of things have passed me by in music. One time I was at Johnny Brenda’s watching a couple play no notes and just letting a bass and guitar feedback a little to create a drone through pedals and amps wondering how they got the gig while scratching my head surprised as people cheered for that as it was going on. The Oh Pears did play actual music but the Morrissey meets Antony and the Johnsons meets Bon Iver cocktail was not finding us well at that hour of a school night. Other old heads who were also staking claim to upstairs real estate wandered off and Vlams and I stayed awake talking about his recently discovering Dinosaur Jr. (one of my favorite bands since the 80′s), the recent Quicksand reunion, and his recent attendance at a Stone Temple Pilots concert. I added to the STP story with a vignette about how the bass player used to date a friend who’s apartment I subletted in Utah. I never changed the message on her answering machine and he left a schmaltzy, verbose (cheesy) message for her while I was living there that my friends and I had several laughs about.

The only other person I recognized in the club was Eric Slick who seemed to curate the bill based on comments from Oh Pears. I was excited to see him play with the Band of Changes and glad to see that “the kid” is packing on the man meat these days that can only mean more power behind the traps. The last time I saw Band of Changes Joe Russo played drums and absolutely blew my mind. Both Slick and Russo remind me of my old buddy Jamison Wilkins who does things as a drummer that are amazing, clean, subtle and super-human and I just appreciate the shit out of drumming like that.

After the Oh Pears left the stage, Slick moved his 2 drum kit onto the stage while Chris, Mickey and Scott Metzger set their stuff up. Once Mickey was plugged in he started noodling around with whatever was on the juke box and Vlams stopped what ever he was saying and acknowledged it. With the Ween hiatus going on right now, you could tell he was ready to play the shit of his guitar and enjoy the zone this army of pros was about to manifest with Chris Harford songs. I prefaced Vlams’ coming with me that this was going to be a guitar shed fest and with those few warm up bars, he knew I wasn’t exaggerating. Dreiwitz came in behind everyone else to the small stage and was given about a minute to get set up before Chris commanded the ensemble to begin a swinging version of ‘Dragonfly’

Chris was playing a pink strat, unlike the acoustic I usually see him playing live, and during the first song the strap he was using broke. He gave the strat a swing out and up under his right arm and with a squeeze he started ripping leads out in the jam. There was some trading of 4′s going on amongst the 3 guitars but Chris dominated the leads free handing his guitar.

After fixing his strap, Chris lead the band into a pop-rock version of ‘Joe Strummer’s Midnight Dream’ that reminded me of Prince’s ‘Never Take the Place of Your Man.’ I had never heard or thought about that song like that and it as much as it would have been a choice version for a power trio, the 5 piece locked it up and played it tight. Around that time Chris broke a string and as he stammered trying to resolve the situation, I felt compelled to run down stairs from the balcony and help him out as a guitar tech. The band carried on playing as he got a string out of his case and had a hard time getting the butt end of the broken string out of the bridge. Before I could perform any heroics, the sound guy or someone by the board came to his rescue with a string winder and some wire cutters. He told the crowd that in 30 years of the band of changes he had never broken a string. Mickey humorously chimed back that he had been in the band for 23 years and that Chris was, “totally unprofessional.”

It’s been about a week since I started this post, excited by this show, so I can’t remember the set song for song. I do remember hearing ‘Raise the Roof’ and 2 tracks from ‘Looking Out for Number 6.’ It was a great rock and roll show and did not fall short of the guitar shed fest I had promised Vlams. Scott Metzger and Mickey had moments of delicious guitarmony as well as elegant layers of soloing that made the sum of all guitars greater than the whole. Chris surprised me with his leads that held their own and blended beautifully with 2 of the best of them. When I asked Vlams if the guitar playing had met his expectations his reply was, “I can’t stop watching the drummer.” Eric Slick is truly a god amongst men and one could easily become lost or entranced trying to perceive everything he was doing back there with 2 drums.

So the struggle to motivate to a late night Monday rock show proved well worth the lack of sleep and Tuesday cob webs. I was surprised to see such a low turn out for such a power house show but really glad I can still take part in the experience of some great area musicians bringing that energy to accessible venues. I felt healthier when it was over and enjoyed being in a room full of normal people for a night. In the day and age of interweb hype, iTunes and people isolated on computers believing they are being social I feel like the live rock and roll experience is like an endangered species. Chris Harford and the Band of Changes have kept it alive for 30 years and it is something that has always been at the core of our band’s existence. Hopefully we can keep it going half as long as they have, even if it is for a few friends, some strangers who want to hear “happy birthday to me” on a mic, a bag lady who wanders into the bar or a crazy man who feels the need to get down when he feels the music. See you at the next show…

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