Richard Barone sounds the keynote to a new series of free Songwriters on the Beach concerts this Thursday night, July 11 in Belmar…then closes down the joint at Maxwell’s in Hoboken on July 31, with the help of The Bongos and friends. (photo by Mick Rock)
If Richard Barone isn’t what we think of as a household name in the popular culture…well, it’s just that we’re gonna need a bigger household to contain all the names.
He’s a Florida-born, Jersey-bred musician’s musician who’s got no less a living landmark than Pete Seeger on speed dial. Friends and collaborators include Lou Reed and Liza with a Z; Oscar winners Paul Williams and Quincy Jones; Donovan and Debbie Harry; members of the Beach Boys and the B-52’s and The Band. We imagine he’s also got ways of getting in touch with Bea Arthur, Peggy Lee, even Tiny Tim.
To anyone in the business of making keeper music, Richard Barone is not a namedropper or a partycrasher, but a singer-songwriter, producer-arranger, guitarist, author-educator and ultimate go-to guy whose McCartneyesque good looks and powerpop poetry put the Hudson hamlet of Hoboken on rock’s radar during his 1980s time in front of The Bongos. He practically invented (definitely perfected) the whole Songwriters in the Round format, in addition to summoning the subgenre of “chamber pop” into being with the rich and gorgeous live album “Cool Blue Halo.” He produced and coordinated a series of all-star tributes to Miss Peggy Lee at Carnegie Hall and the Hollywood Bowl, and he’s released a series of lush and exhilarating studio solos highlighted by “Glow,” his 2010 mod masterwork with producer-pope Tony Visconti (Bowie, T. Rex, Sparks, need we go on?). None of which touches upon his stint as Tampa’s “Littlest DJ’ at age seven, or the Tiny Tim sessions that he recorded with his tulip-tiptoeing idol when he was but a teen.
No, the effusively engaging Mr. Barone is not historically shy when it comes to connecting (and making intriguing music) with his heroes — and neither is this crafter of oblique lyrical imagery anyone’s shoegazing shrinking violet on stage, where in both solo and combo contexts he consistently wins over audiences “anywhere from the Hollywood Bowl to the bowling alley.”
The merry month of July finds the self-described “troubador on the road” detouring from a southeastern U.S. jaunt for two significant Jersey events — one of them signaling a new beginning for a battered borough, the other an end-times valedictory for one of the most venerated of NJ venues.
That event that’s all about rebirth and renewal takes place on Thursday evening, July 11, when Barone inaugurates a rebranded slate of free Songwriters on the Beach concerts, presented by Brookdale Public Radio 90.5 The Night and Belmar Tourism. Relocated (to the oceanfront between Fifth and Sixth Avenues) from its former setting at Red Bank’s Riverside Gardens, the weekly 7 p.m. series finds Barone in trio mode, with fellow former Bongo Rob Norris on bass and longtime Donovan sideman Candy John on drums (in addition to an opening set starring The Sunday Blues).
Then on Wednesday, July 31 comes the moment that none of us have been waiting for: the final night of music at Maxwell’s in Hoboken, the Washington Street wellspring that launched and nurtured the careers of Yo La Tengo, The Feelies and the aforementioned Bongos — in addition to hosting everyone from Nirvana and Soundgarden, to Rufus Wainwright and Bruce Springsteen (who filmed his “Glory Days” video there with director John Sayles). Although particulars of that last-call show are being played close to the vest, Barone will be playing a major part, both in the four-piece Bongos roster and in his reunited band “a” — the band who, in fact, pioneered the era of live music at what would become one of the most respected music venues on the east coast. The seemingly ageless Barone — his hours traditionally divided between studio and gym and stage — spoke to upperWETside about all of this.
upperWETside: Always a pleasure, Richard — and before we address the sick and dying elephant in the living room, I wanted to let you know how thrilled I am to see you reboot the Brookdale Radio series, and how much of a blast it was to catch your previous Songwriters sets…
BARONE: I love doing it; it’s a great format wherever they present it, and I’m especially excited about being there in Belmar…the radio people and the town have worked hard to make this happen, and I’m happy to help out. I’ve spent a lot of summers on the Shore…it’s my natural habitat.
And, although you don’t play here quite as much as I’d prefer, I do have to admit that you’ve taken part in all sorts of events here…songwriter circles, benefits, even a tribute to Alice Cooper at the Brighton Bar…
Anyplace you play is your cathedral…and I’ve played every place from Carnegie Hall to biker bars. Bowling alleys, of course Asbury Lanes, which is great fun. I should say that I loved the Red Bank location, too — I loved the idea of performing against that beautiful backdrop of the river, with the sunset. But bringing the Songwriter shows to Belmar is a positive; it allows them to spread the love to a different area, and allows other people to come to the event. I enjoyed performing solo, taking requests from the audience…but this time I’ll be doing a ‘power trio’ format, and while we don’t have a setlist put together right this moment, I can tell you that we could be doing everything from old songs that influenced me, to a song that I might have written in the car, on the way over. My show is past, present and future, all in one moment.
Which brings to mind…I don’t know if you follow comic books at all, but there’s a character by name of Dr. Manhattan, who sees all time at once. He experiences past, present and future in one moment, as you said. He’s also noted for appearing in public without pants.
Right, and I have also been known to appear without pants! But yeah, I think of time as being one thing…I don’t like to separate past, present, future like that…the same way I believe that the physical, the mental, and the spiritual realms are intertwined.
Just taking into consideration the staggering array of people that you’ve worked with, really reinforces the notion of Richard Barone as someone who exists at the nexus of all music, if that’s not too precious a way of putting it! But really, you’ve charmed the best out of everyone you collaborate with, from Lou Reed to Tiny Tim…if you used such an archaic device as a Rolodex, I’d imagine it to be the size of the giant wheel on The Price Is Right…
I have managed to build a great list of contacts…what can I say; I have a multi-track life! (laughs) But these are all people whose work I’ve admired as a fan and a fellow musician…Al Jardine from the Beach Boys, to give a recent example. Go to my website and you’ll find a video of Al and myself singing Pete Seeger’s song “If I Had a Hammer,” which was just a dream come true. Tony Visconti, who I’d wanted to work with for years…sometimes you need to be patient, for that right moment to arrive. It was that way with the Tiny Tim record…that album came about because of a promise I made to Tim. It was many years before I had the clout to be able to place it on a label. I had to get to that place first.
Getting back to Visconti…who to me is just this nearly mythological, mystical presence behind so many of the records that thrilled me as a kid…the “Glow” album is just such a happy mind-meld of performer and producer; definitely one of your finest studio projects.
Well thank you for saying that, but what’s really interesting about “Glow” is how much of it was done outside of any actual studio setting…parts of it were done in my home, and in Tony’s home, as well as at Skywalker Ranch. It was assembled from all sorts of elements, from old instruments that happened to be lying around, to the Digital Les Paul guitar, which I was taking part in the process of designing and developing.
Is that what we hear on the song “Sanctified,” about a minute into it when there’s this monumental guitar orchestration sound?
No, that is actually two acoustic guitars…two old guitars that were in Tony’s kitchen…played by Tony and me, with one microphone! That’s an example of the fact that a lot of the records we love had to do with the engineer and the producer, rather than the studio. A lot of “Diamond Dogs” was recorded at Tony’s home.
You got similarly pleasing results on the NUTS AND BOLTS album with James Mastro, which was literally a “garage” record you did at Mitch Easter’s place…it’s got a pretty luxurious sound, punctuated by things that sound like dragging tire chains, or an empty soda bottle rolling across the floor…
Mitch’s home studio was what I guess you’d call a carport; sealed off at the ends, and just a fantastic place to record. We had a lot of fun making some noise on the song “My Sin“…listen to it again and you’ll hear a popping champagne cork, which I remember as being especially difficult to get just right.
Easter, of course, is a North Carolina guy, but he could be said to have had a hand in shaping the Hoboken sound too…which leads us to the inevitable talk of Maxwell’s and its imminent demise. You had some thoughts to share on the subject, on your site, and certain words and phrases jump out, like when you call the place a “non-aggressive” environment. Which is something they never say about City Gardens, for instance…
It takes all types of venues to satisfy all the different experiences out there. Maxwell’s never told you what it was supposed to be, or tell you what you were…it was a relaxed and open environment that didn’t impose itself on the bands, or the audience. Artists need a place to meet and support each other, and it was the sense of community that made Maxwell’s great; that kept it a viable venue.
Change can bring sadness…but change has to happen for growth to happen. And while I can’t tell you a whole lot about what we’ll be doing on the 31st, I can say that how Maxwell’s closes will be very close to how it began…a lot of the same musicians will be presented, and I’ll be making an exciting announcement from the stage.
You’ll be reuniting once more with the four-piece Bongos lineup?
We’ll all be there, and the original three Bongos will also be playing in our band known as “a,” with Glenn Morrow who went on to form The Individuals. It was a different sort of band than the Bongos…more complex, intricate songs. The Bongos were never all that interested in rehearsing; we’d jam on other people’s songs, and our live sets would be more about the spirit and attitude, rather than precision and intellect.
So where does the road take you from there?
I’ll be continuing my tour — of course, I’ll be way down in Florida when I have to come back up to Hoboken —and although I’m playing solo, I’m encouraging full bands to open up for me. I’m encouraging them to learn some Bongos songs or other songs that we can perform together…I’ll be going from town to town, not rehearsing with the other musicians but learning to play together as it happens…
That’s kind of the way Chuck Berry would do it!
Exactly like Chuck Berry! I’m also writing for the next album; looking to work with songwriters who make a difference. The door may be open, on the next album, for people who we’re excited to work with, to play a part.
Updates on the final weeks at Maxwell’s can be found at maxwellsnj.com. Take it to wbjb.org (or Brookdale Public Radio’s Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter outlets) for hypercurrent info about Songwriters on the Beach, the free series that continues through July and August with appearances by Nicole Atkins, James Maddock and more.