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Rum? Yummy! (l-r) Conover, Nelson, Kash, and Clyde.

photo:Chris Shields

Here We Go Again

The Rumdummies, whose members helped define the Capital Region scene a generation ago, are just as committed to local music as ever By Erik Hage

Shooting the breeze with the Rumdummies on a high back deck off of Irving Street feels like being at a junction of streams that have long coursed through local-music history. There’s simply a lot of music and miles at this patio table dotted with bottles of Red Stripe and snifters of Hefeweizen (courtesy of host and singer-harmonica player Pat Conover). The best stuff—stuff I can’t share—comes when the sun dips, the beer flows a bit more and the tape recorder is snapped off. (Steven Clyde keeps craning his head toward the device deck to make sure it’s inert before launching into various, mildly salacious anecdotes.)

Lounging around the table is drummer Al Kash (with trademark puff of white hair and soft Aussie accent) and guitarist Todd Nelson, who represent one-half of the late Fear of Strangers (once known as the Units), a group that, along with Blotto, defined the early ’80s new-wave scene in Albany.

In his long meandering path toward Albany, Kash also played in early ’70s Australian rockers Blackfeather and in New York City new-wave outfit Fly to France, a band led by Canadians Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor, who would go on to form one of the most popular Canuck groups of all-time, Blue Rodeo. In recent years, Kash has also toured with Savoy Brown (amongst countless other projects).

For his part, Nelson played in numerous groups here and in Boston and even laid down some guitar on Aimee Mann’s debut solo album, Whatever, a gig that came about based on an audition for a latter-day version of ’Til Tuesday years ago.

Here as well is bassist-keyboardist Steven Clyde, the founding guitarist (in 1970) of the Star-Spangled Washboard Band, a popular local group that toured the country and eventually morphed into Blotto. (Clyde wasn’t in Blotto back in the day, but currently plays with the reunited unit.) In the ’80s, Clyde teamed up with Eddie Angel and local rock-&-roll king Johnny Rabb in the Rockin’ Dakotas. He has also toured the globe with Commander Cody and the Neanderthals.

Then there’s the X-factor in the Rumdummies: Conover, an Arkansas native who developed his blues chops in the various roadhouses throughout the South before finding himself playing in various incarnations upstate.

When I mention to the fairly low-key, chatty members of the band that I expected more of a cynical, “been-there-done-that attitude,” Kash softly chuckles, “Oh, I think some of us have a bit of that.” But then he demurs, “With our friends in younger bands that have been around longer, we see they’re not really that much busier than we are. How can you complain?”

“But at this stage of your lives, are you less apt to get in a van and take off for two weeks?” I wonder.

“We would if it seemed like it made sense,” Nelson offers.

“It’d have to be a venue that would work well with our material,” adds Clyde.

“It’d have to be a three-week tour for all of the bathroom stops,” Conover cracks, breaking up the entire table.

But make no mistake: This is not simply a group of vets passively reflecting on their sepia-toned years, but a vital unit with a clear, distinct vision and a lushly produced debut album in hand (the self-deprecatingly titled Too Dum to Quit). The album is a raucous mix of blues, pop, world music and reggae.

To hint at the range of the group’s muse, Clyde’s reggae-tinged “Mapping the Over Yonder” wouldn’t sound out of place on a Jimmy Cliff album, while the Conover-Nelson cowrite “My Biscuit’s Got a Hole” (a tune that could become the Rumdummies’ calling card) is a searing blues number, with a call-and-response segment, that comes off like a modern-day traditional. On the other hand, “Laugh Instead of Cry” sounds like a jangle-pop hit. In fact, the group has come to define their (barely definable) sound as “swamp jangle.”

They came together a few years ago when Nelson and Conover started throwing ideas around. Soon after, Nelson jokes, Clyde and Kash “showed up at the door with their bags.” The blues accents soon started creeping in. “I think a turning point was when we worked on ‘Boil That Turpentine.’ We kind of latched onto that. We thought, ‘Let’s pursue this angle a little more,’” Nelson remembers.

Things gelled quickly, to the point where the group had more than enough material for an album, so they headed into Arabellum Studios for an extended period of recording. “Getting to hear it in the studio and taking mixes home of some of the early stuff inspired more [material]—just from what we were hearing,” Clyde recalls. “Recording can be a really good writing tool.” Nelson notes that he and Conover also found they were natural songwriting collaborators. “Sometimes I’d have an idea for [a song] and I’d call Pat and half an hour later he’d call back and have five verses.” The group handled production themselves, and Nelson says, “The producing chair shifted according to various things.”

A true test of the band’s live grit came during their successful, well-attended CD-release show in late June at WAMC’s Linda Norris Auditorium. “It was a concert setting . . . and we did alright!” understates Nelson. “We’re used to playing [bars] where people aren’t necessarily listening.”

The Rumdummies have a slew of other gigs lined up in the near future, most imminently at Altamont Fair on Saturday.

Otherwise, this assemblage of well-heeled vets is simply happy to be busy. “I don’t think we’re at the ‘reaching-for-the-brass-ring’ stage of our lives,” claims Nelson. Clyde (who some might have seen in caveman fur and mask at a recent Alive at Five gig with the Neanderthals) adds, “There are a lot of great venues in this region to perform original music. It’s a good area, and we’re glad to make a contribution.”

For Nelson and Kash, the group’s current musical approach is a far cry from their more experimental endeavors in Fear of Strangers in the ‘80s. “With Fear of Strangers, we kind of messed around with rhythms a lot,” Kash points out. Nelson recalls, “In music in general there was a kind of anything goes thing about writing songs. And I think Talking Heads had a lot to do with that. They’d put the weirdest two chords together. . . . It sort of freed us up in some ways.”

The reference to that era begs the question of how things have changed locally since that heyday of J.B. Scott’s, Blotto, Fear of Strangers, etc. “That was a booming area in Albany,” concedes Kash. But Nelson, who spent a portion of the ’90s in Boston, is hesitant to categorize the shift. “The changes aren’t locally generated. Whatever changes happened are changes that happened in the music business, things that people really don’t have any control over here.”

Clyde points to various milestones that have changed the local-music landscape: the advent of Disco and the Sports Bar, which redesignated venues that had once been devoted exclusively to hanging out and seeing music.

But, cracks Nelson, “Equipment is smaller now, so you can just huddle in a corner.” (“Even drums?” I wonder, aloud.)

Clyde also remembers the drinking age having a huge effect on crowds; he says it hit close to home with the Rockin’ Dakotas, whose rockabilly following was largely 17- to 20-year-olds back in the early ’80s.

But the indefinable, exciting and loose spirit of that era is perhaps best defined in an anecdote by Kash (an Albany rock institution, if there is one): “One night, a band I was in, Young Reptiles, was playing at the Devil’s Inn, and unbeknownst to us, the African-American people that booked the place thought we weren’t what we were,” Kash recalls in his gentile manner. “After a set they kicked us out. We had a big crowd there, and made a phone call—and the next minute we were loading our gear into Eight Ball’s up here on Central Avenue, a gay bar, where we then commenced our second set.”

The Rumdummies will play Saturday at the Altamont Fair (on the Grove Stage) at 5:15 PM.


ROUGH MIX

WE BID THEE FAREWELL Area performer Larry Lewis passed away in his home on Saturday, Aug. 6, after a long battle with throat cancer. He was 51 years old, and leaves behind two small children, ages 6 and 1. He was a regular performer at Capital Region events like Alive at Five, the Fleet Blues Fest and the Saratoga Final Stretch Festival. He was also well-known for “Totally Albany,” a commercial he recorded for Fox 23. For the last few years, Lewis has fronted his group Larry Lewis and Solid Smoke, and the Larry Lewis Jazz Trio and Quartet. There are plans in the works for a benefit concert featuring local musicians to help with funeral costs and to start a trust fund for Lewis’ kids; keep an eye on these pages in a future issue for more information.

TO THE PEOPLE, FROM THE PEOPLE The Clay People have been keeping a low profile as of late, but that doesn’t mean that they haven’t been busy bees. They are close to finishing their new album Waking the Dead (recorded at Scarlet East), for which they are planning a fall release, along with a release show in October. In the meantime, TCP are gearing up for their “relaunch” show tomorrow night down at Scarlet East Studio (448B N. Pearl St., Albany). If you wanna go, be prepared to pay up: The price is $50—but this covers the cost of the show, a TCP T-shirt, a copy of the new CD and open bar all night long (plus, you get the chance to show up in a future video—they’ll be shooting footage tomorrow night). The money will also help cover CD release costs for the band. The current lineup of TCP is Brian McGarvey, Dan Dinsmore, John Delehanty, Eric Swanky and Dan Neet. For more information, call Scarlet East at 426-9529 or visit www.myspace.com/theclaypeople.

THINKING POSITIVELY Artie Fredette is at it again. After the closing of Artie’s River Street Stage (on River Street in downtown Troy), he has moved back over to familiar stomping grounds, Troy’s 4th Street, to resurrect Positively 4th Street in a new location (at 46 4th St., formerly Ryan’s Paint Store). With the help of attorney Leesa Naimo, and businessmen John Cehowski and Patrick Vaccariello, Fredette seems prepared to make the new club a success. A preview of the club was held last Friday (Aug. 12) with musical guests Melodrome. According to P4th press, a mission for the new incarnation of the club is to combine great food and spirits while remaining focused on supporting local music. The official opening of the venue will take place on Wednesday, Sept. 7; the Charms will perform as a kick-off for their national tour. For more information, call the club at 687-0064 or visit their (very young) Web site at www.p4th.com.

—Kathryn Lurie



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