John Troy's last East Coast stand
TM&B's a super-group of super-sidemen, guys who have been in the musical trenches for decades, building up monster resumes and working in the shadows of the big shots - a three-way musical partnership that began four years ago and will come to a sudden, unexpected end next week when the band, in what has been a kind of "Last Waltz" moment, gives a farewell performance in Newburyport.
It all comes about because bassist John Troy, an original member of the Pousette-Dart Band and a guy who has put in his time with Natalie Cole, Bonnie Raitt and Joe Cocker, is going home - to California. Dave Mattacks, the Marblehead resident who made his name with Richard Thompson and Fairport Convention and has rubbed musical shoulders with Elton John and Paul McCartney, and Gloucester guitarist David Brown, who put in over a decade with Cocker and played the famous Central Park gig with Paul Simon and that curly haired guy, will move onto other projects.
They've been working steadily, refusing to call it in despite the fact that they're calling it quits. That's because the trio is a side project for the sidemen. It's supposed to be fun - and that means fun for them, the musicians. If you, the person in the audience, have fun too, well, that's great. Because it's fun when everybody's having fun. But if your idea of fun is getting out and hearing the time-tested dance floor favorites, don't even think about calling it out. The trio famously refuses to play requests. Any requests. Period. Even under threat of fisticuffs. And it has come down to this on more than one occasion. Such is the life of a club musician.
And the trio will never, under any conditions, play "Mustang Sally," the oldest blues warhorse in the stable - and, perhaps, the most popular request in any blues club.
Wait a second. It may be negotiable. Maybe they're mellowing, now that things are winding down for the trio. Yup, they'll do it. It'll cost you, though. Three hundred bucks cash money, the bassist says. Is he joking?
"When I played 'Mustang Sally' for the ten-thousandth time, I put it in a little Viking boat, set it on fire and pushed it into the fjord," the 56-year-old bassist says. "I'm too old and cranky to deal with it anymore."
So what will they play?
Pretty much anything they want, and that could be anything under the musical sun.
"We always show up ready to play," says Troy. "No song is ever the same; every song is an exploration, every song is an adventure."
On the road again
Troy's long musical ride began in 1971. Troy was a surfer dude from Oceanside, Calif., attending the University Pacifica. So was a young guitarist and songwriter named Jon Pousette-Dart. They started performing as a duo, but Troy left school and figured he would never see Pousette-Dart again. He ended up playing in a disco cover band - wearing crushed velvet pants and playing James Brown and Al Green. He got a call from Pousette-Dart, who had left school not long after Troy and headed east. He had a gig lined up - a gig opening for John Hammond at a trendy Cape Cod nightspot. Attending the show would be Don Law, who was just beginning to branch out from promoting concerts to managing bands.
Pousette-Dart asked Troy if he wanted to play in the band. He did. He learned that he would be playing the bass. ("I swallowed it," Troy says. "It was a bitter pill.") He bought a Fender Precision bass and got busy with it. The instrument eventually took over his life, although his old Martin came with him for every move. He drove to Cambridge. They were hard times, they had nothing to do but practice. Eventually the duo added a guitarist and drummer - eventually going through more drummers than Spinal Tap - and built a national reputation. They recorded four albums for Capitol and, in 1980, at the height of its musical prowess, but unable to gain a national audience, the band was dropped by the label. Bewildered and exhausted, they called it quits.
The same mysterious (twisted) fate crashed over several other Troy projects over the past three decades, including the John Hall Band, which recorded two discs on EMI-America, and toured as the backup band for Bonnie Raitt, who, despite her mega-successes, one day found herself without a deal. Says Troy, "This business will make a cynic out of anyone."
Five years ago, Troy decided he would take off in his own direction. He's spent three decades as a sideman. He'd get a call, they'd tell him where to go, when to show up and what to play. "I wanted more," Troy says. He moved in two directions: as a solo artist, whipping out the guitar, not the bass, and working in a band context. He released his first solo CD "Just When I Thought I Was Done" - a collection of 12 acoustic numbers that swing from funky to lilting, from funny to sad - earlier this year.
The trio project, which didn't get revved up until a couple of years ago, actually had its roots in the late '90s, when Troy had teamed up with Salem saxophonist Henley Douglas, founding member of the Heavy Metal Horns and, later, the Boston Horns, and put together a quartet called Generator. The band started generating some heat and making a little noise. That's right about the time he met Brown. He sat in with the band one night and Brown's playing "just blew my mind," Troy says. "I heard that and I though 'Oh, man. We've got to get him into the band.'" He lobbied for Brown to replace the original guitarist, and won the argument. But the change in personnel completely changed the sound. Douglas, who wanted a rootsier sound, lost interest in the project, and it fell apart. They worked together in a project called the Sidemen. They built a following, but didn't get the kind of traction the band needed to sustain itself. Then, a couple of years ago, Troy ran into Mattacks, at a Blues Party session.
The trio's developed a following, but not like the old days, when you'd play the circuit and more people would be at each ensuing show. It's an older audience, people with jobs and family and Hagar relaxed-fit pants.
Originally it was supposed to be called the John Troy Band, but he felt undeserving. He was more democratic about it, but, as founder, maintained top billing. At the same time the trio released "Live at Captain Carlos," recorded at the Gloucester venue. The disc "is not what we hoped for," says Troy, "but it's a fair snapshot of what goes on between us. As sidemen, you have to learn how to be good in all different styles."
This is amply documented on the disc, which, moves from style to style without missing a beat, from the drum-bashing rocker "Ready to Rock," which opens the disc, to a deep country cover of Ry Cooder's "Boomer's Story," to the classic, frat-housey "Hey Baby," and more than amply conveys the spontaneity of the band and its mastery of musical idioms ranging from mastery of an eclectic bag of rock to New Orleans to ... well, whatever they feel like playing.
Troy will leave for California a couple of days after the trio's final date in Newburyport. Right now, he's living in the middle of nowhere, on the side of a mountain just north of Fitchburg, a place that has 20 miles of nothing in either direction - a distance that "goes on for an eternity" when you're driving home from a gig at 3 a.m. "It's not so painful to leave, to say the least." His new place is just five minutes away from I-5, the major north-south highway out west.
The move is "a little scary," he says. Here Troy is a known quantity. There's plenty of work for him - as a solo artist, with the trio, which he calls "the best musical collaboration" he's had in years, and as a hired gun. His calendar is full up to the moment he gets on the road. In California, he'll be back to square one, in a sense. This time, however, he'll have the resume.
So why is he doing it? Well, he was born and raised in California. He's been living in the Bay State for 35 years, "and I want to go home."