I wrote this piece a few years back after Tigger and I witnessed Tom Hamilton and the American Babies doing what they do best. When they finished “Invite All Your Friends” at the end of the set, Tommy tapped his heart and tipped his hat towards Tigger and I – we being the two folks holding hands with tears in our eyes and grins on our faces.
The Babies current lineup (as of fall of 2013) has Tom Hamilton out front on guitar and vocals, along with David Butler (Lee “Scratch” Perry) on drums, Adam Flicker (The Brakes) on keys, and Nick Bockrath (Nico’s Gun) on bass. There’s a new album – Knives & Teeth – due in October. Pay attention.
And, sadly, there hasn’t been another UpNorth Festival in Hiram, ME since 2008. We’ll never forget that one, though.People have talked about, written about, and even sung about “rock ‘n’ roll heart” (not my favorite Clapton song of all time, by the way). And I suppose there are as many different definitions as there are tunes, tomes, and discussions. What’s my take on it? For me, it’s that thing that keeps you going no matter how many miles you’re going to put on the van; no matter how much of an ass the promoter is; no matter that it wouldn’t take a CPA to figure out that the dollars in:dollars out ratio is never going to get you on the cover of Fortune magazine … and “that thing” is simply wanting to play music. That’s the real rock ‘n’ roll heart. It doesn’t have anything to do with looks, style, buzzwords, catchphrases, merchandise, blogs, MySpaces, Facebooks, YouTube videos, or clever logos … you just came to play, man.
I think I could pump out a few of these columns talking about rock ‘n’ roll heart (and who knows, maybe I will), but if I had to come up with one good example, I know just exactly what it would be: American Babies at the Up North Festival in Hiram, ME back on August 10, 2008. You know the Babies, right? Singer/songwriter/guitarist Tom Hamilton leads the way; Tom’s brother Jim plays the bass, sharing the engine room with drummer Joe Russo (yeah, that Joe Russo); and Scott Metzger (who is quite possibly the most versatile axeman in NYC) plays guitar. Their debut album came out in April of 2008 (with a bunch of other friends assisting throughout) and I double-dang guarantee you that the opening track, “Invite All Your Friends”, will absolutely break your heart in the sweetest of ways. It really is one of the best songs I’ve ever heard about coming home to somebody you love. (My wife Tigger and I can’t hear it without holding hands and lip-syncing the words whilst staring into each other’s eyes like a grey-haired Sonny & Cher … but we’re like that. It might not have the same effect on you, but I bet you’ll like it just the same.)
So our American Babies tale took place in early August of last year, but to set the stage for this example of how fickle Fortuna can be when she spins her wheel of fate, we need to go back a few weeks prior to the Up North Festival. That’s when the long arm of Uncle Sam reached out and gave the Babies a slap in the chops. Jim Hamilton, having already done time in the service, was recalled as a reserve. (He was assigned to duty on US soil as a drill sergeant, but there were no guarantees …) With their brother, friend, and founding member taken away – and a newly-released debut album to tour behind – the Babies were shaken, to say the least.Enter Jonathan Goldberger, a fellow New Yorker who had crossed musical paths with the Babies. A good man on just about anything with strings, Goldberger came aboard to hold down the bass end of things in Jim Hamilton’s absence. (If you’re keeping track, we have a good thing [release of killer debut album], followed by a real bad thing [Jim’s recall], followed by a Hail Mary [Jonathan Goldberger to the rescue].)
Their new bassist hadn’t much more than figured out where to stand on stage when the Babies were headed to the Newport Folk Festival. Now, talk about something out of a movie: the Babies had just finished a blistering set on one of the side stages at Newport when the festival co-producer asked if they could cover for the Marley family, who were running late.
On the main stage.
Guess what: nobody had to ask them twice. The Babies braved the turned-to-absolute-dogshit weather and cranked it on for the wind-blown, rain-soaked crowd, many of whom had never heard of the band, but knew they wanted more. (Tally up a great scheduled performance, followed by a heroic unscheduled performance.) The Babies were the darlings of Newport. Next stop, Hiram, ME’s Up North Festival the following weekend.
For a debut event up here in our part of the world, the folks who put on the Up North Festival offered a great lineup. Listen to this: Everyone Orchestra, Giant Panda Guerilla Dub Squadron, Lettuce, Soulive, The Wailers, John Brown’s Body, Ryan Montbleau, Assembly Of Dust, Umphrey’s McGee, Railroad Earth, and RatDog were among the bands that shook the ground beneath the Ossipee Valley Fairgrounds over those three days in August of 2008. And, of course, American Babies. (The 2009 event was cancelled, yet another victim of the economy. There’s still hope for 2010.)
Scheduled to hit the main stage at 1:00 PM Sunday afternoon, the Babies caught a flight from NY to Portland, ME that morning. And that’s where our story starts to unravel: apparently, they took off just ahead (and I mean, like, singe-your-tailfeathers just ahead) of a massive area of thunderstorms that was blasting its way eastward. The folks at the Portland Jetport told Tom Hamilton that the National Weather Service was predicting the mess to slam-crash right up through New England as the afternoon wore on … and all afternoon flights headed back in its path had been grounded.
But that’s rock ‘n’ roll, folks; that’s life on the road – things don’t always go the way they’re meant to. And nobody wants to pull a Buddy Holly, right? So, the Babies went to Plan B, which meant driving a rental car back to NY after the Up North set. Hey – a gig’s a gig. They hit the road for Hiram.
In the meantime, the scene at the festival site was tranquil. The weather at that point was beautiful; the vibes were mellow; the music so far had been great; Umphrey’s McGee had flattened the crowd with their Saturday night set … and people were just plain happy and drained. As Tigger and I strolled through the camping area, we saw the occasional half-hearted game of Frisbee or sleepy-eyed acoustic guitar strummer, but things were pretty quiet. There were no long lines at the vendors’ booths, either … few were ready for all-natural smoothies or a grilled cheese at that point. The batteries needed a little more recharging, maaannnn … RatDog’s tonight.
A few lot lizards crawled out to catch the PBR-soaked alt-country of The Trainwreks, but when the band finished up channeling Uncle Tupelo’s punkier side, most of their small audience stivvered off to reenergize in the sun. By the time the Babies hit the stage to do a quick soundcheck, you could count on your fingers the number of us scattered along the edge of the stage.
So what do you do when you’re the band in a case like that? What do you do when the hair on your arms still tingles from the thrill of turning on a whole new crowd of followers at a setting like the Newport Folk Festival and now you’re looking out at an empty field as you prepare to start your 45-minute – 45-count-‘em-45-minutes-and-that’s-it – set up in Where Are We Again, ME … and then turn around and drive back to New York?
Well, I don’t know what anybody else would do in that case, but Tommy Hamilton and American Babies played their ever-loving asses off.
I know, I know – it’s easy to get caught up in the moment and the emotion of the music (and the question there being, “Yeah? And your point?”) but check out the recording of that day on the Live Music Archive (with thanks to Smokin’ Joe – and there’s an article that should be written, right there: “Joe Bouchard – The Hardest-Working Taper In The World”). Listen to the music; listen to the energy; listen to the frigging heart. I’d defy you to put your ear to that recording and come away saying, “Well, it’s obvious they were playing to an empty field.” No way. Of course, the giveaway is when the music stops: the few who were there were roaring their approval, blown away by what we were witnessing, but it’s obvious that the audience would all fit in the same microbus.
But no matter: the Babies came to play. Once Joe Russo climbed into the cockpit behind his drums, he was all business – the chief engineer in his element, slamming shovelfuls of coal into the beast’s rhythm boiler. Jonathan Goldberger took his place alongside Russo with a stage presence that bordered on shy but immediately tied the drums and guitars together with a powerful bass voice – no overplaying; yet always playing just enough. Scott Metzger’s Les Paul never left his shoulders, but he coaxed so many different voices out of it that you might’ve thought he was changing axes after every song. If Tom Hamilton was the guy who’d drawn the scenes, Metzger was the guy inking in the colors.And then there was Tom Hamilton. He was grinning when they hit the stage, and I doubt he was grinning any harder at Newport. He tore into the rocking songs with a fierce energy; he retreated to somewhere inside during the moments of sweetness. He prowled his side of the stage, make guerrilla swipes at Russo with crazy laughter. He wailed on his Telecaster – everything from big, fat walloping chords to searing slide leads. He crooned, he pushed it, he grabbed the mike stand and blew harp like a cross between Dylan when he’s trying and Junior Wells with the devil on his back. To an empty field/to 500,000 … it didn’t matter.
Some excerpts from my spiral notebook that day:“Everything Will Be Just Fine” – nobody here, but these guys don’t care … they came to play music … Scott Metzger laying down brilliant Ventura highway solo … Russo never pauses, starts the heartbeat for “Joline” – Tommy Hamilton singing his guts out, whamming out big Tele chords … one gal actually takes a step back from the railing when TH lunges forward – scared her? “Baby Don’t Cry” – Beautiful guitar weaving between TH and SM … Goldberger keeping it sparse, perfect … Russo knows when to be laid-back cool jazzbo … “Blue Skies” – Metzger brilliant in full-stomp country chaos, giving way to big garage punk chords as TH wails on harp … “Brooklyn Bridge” – Gentle “Would you buy the Brooklyn Bridge…” then bomp-bomp-bomp-bomp-WHAM Russo and Goldberger start driving the thing. Metzger chunking away like Johnny Ramone … take it back: no punk ever played like that … wild-arse slide by Tom “Restless Heart” – Metzger sounds like Stones’ “Wild Horses” guitar break times 10 … “Invite All Your Friends” … shit, Tommy – you made us cry. Holding Tigger … Metzger’s mirror shades are off – where did THAT solo come from? … this is what ‘r&r heart’ means … really is.” And by the time “Invite All Your Friends” glided to a halt, there were a few more people there than when the set began – the ones who’d shown up late realizing they’d missed something wild and powerful and good – but it was time for the Babies to say goodbye. There was a crew standing by to make over the stage for Railroad Earth. The show must go on.
Scott Metzger shared a few minutes off to the side of the stage, a little of that energy that fired the last guitar break still flashing in his eyes. Scott wanted to know how it sounded; how it came across – he asked me as many questions as I did him. And when he spoke about trying to find an older Telecaster (“Oh, yeah – that’s my dream guitar”), it was with all the excitement and passion of a high school freshman who’s just figured out the intro to “Smoke On The Water” and can’t wait to show his girlfriend. The frigging guy is not only great at what he does – he loves it. He absolutely loves it.
We watched the Babies head off to the parking area, guitar cases in hand, knowing they’d just given the fortunate few of us who were there a hell of a show. Now they’d climb into their rental and head back to New York.For you who have been keeping score of the ups and downs in this story, I shouldn’t have to tell you where to put the tally for the Up North portion. You could’ve had a Woodstock-sized audience, but if it wasn’t happening on stage, what’s the point?
What we’d just witnessed was a victory.
There’s supposed to be a new American Babies album out soon. Pay attention. It’s bound to be packed solid with rock ‘n’ roll heart.
This feature first appeared on Jambands.com in November, 2009