Back to Metroland's Home Page!
 Site Search
   Search Metroland.Net
 Classifieds
   View Classified Ads
   Place a Classified Ad
 Personals
   Online Personals
   Place A Print Ad
 Columns & Opinions
   The Simple Life
   Comment
   Looking Up
   Reckonings
   Opinion
   Myth America
   Letters
   Rapp On This
 News & Features
   Newsfront
   Features
   What a Week
   Loose Ends
 Lifestyles
   This Week's Review
   The Dining Guide
   Leftovers
   Scenery
   Tech Life
 Cinema & Video
   Weekly Reviews
   The Movie Schedule
 Music
   Listen Here
   Live
   Recordings
   Noteworthy
 Arts
   Theater
   Dance
   Art
   Classical
   Books
   Art Murmur
 Calendar
   Night & Day
   Event Listings
 AccuWeather
 About Metroland
   Where We Are
   Who We Are
   What We Do
   Work For Us
   Place An Ad

 

PHOTO: Chris Shields

All Grown Up

Rocky Velvet reflect on almost a decade of playing together, and its culmination: their very first CD

By Erik Hage

 

It’s always best at the end, when the framework of the interview has sort of collapsed on itself, and everyone is just being. And so it ends with Rocky Velvet, a neat decade into their existence, standing around an open car door in the muggy heat, a tattooed forearm here and there waving at the blackflies that are making determined circles in the evening mug.

The sun has lowered into one of those giant perfectly deep-orange orbs over rural Cropseyville, the band’s oft-cited birthplace. In fact, their brand-new album—and first official LP, believe it or not—is called It Came From Cropseyville.

They’re listening to an old, just-unearthed cassette tape of a QE2 show from back in 1998, when they were all of 19 or so. The edges are rawer. The songs are attacked with youthful, punky aggression. There’s a false start here and a missed drum fill there. But it’s Rocky Velvet alright, our area’s youthful rockabilly phenoms in their infancy, having the gall to tear into Elvis Presley’s “Rip it Up” like it’s their own.

There’s something childlike and open about people listening to aural documents of their past. Everything falls from them: Ian Carlton repeatedly, almost absently, runs his hand through his thick head of hair. Some have small smiles; all gazes are turned inward. Graham Tichy, ever the ringleader and musical theoretician, occasionally bounds toward the tape deck, parsing out mistakes, anticipating nuances and conjecturing about songlists. (Why he is not called Smilin’ Graham Tichy is beyond me; his beaming joie de vive is like the glowing fuel cell in the band.)

From the tape, one can hear the pieces already in place: guitarist Tichy’s effortlessly nimble and bright stabs, vocalist Carlton’s high-energy hoarseness, and drummer Jeff Michael’s rock solidity. And the drive: the burning, hellhound-on-my-tail pulse that only the anointed can muster. Great poetry, someone once said, has that “heat of arrival” in its final lines. Rockabilly doesn’t have the luxury of travel; it has to burn hotly from end to end.

The tape is a rare find. The group have returned to the Rocky Velvet Compound (aka Michael’s parents’ house) for the first time in ages. In fact, says Tichy, sidling up to me as the tape rolls, they haven’t rehearsed in five years. (Like salty jazzmen, they had lately developed a tendency to just whip out their gear on gig night.)

Cropseyville is a good place to sift through the past, and a lot of documents remain undisturbed: youthful photos of beer-can pyramids and an old tour van, the group’s first primitive concert poster. (Ill-advised PR for a Russell Sage College show: a nude silhouette and the lusty proclamation “girls! girls! girls!” Few attended, notes Tichy.)

Mini-myths pop up around certain area groups, and Rocky Velvet are one of the more compelling stories. A bunch of teenagers who latched onto a ’50s style of music and played it well enough to snap heads around, they landed upon us with sky-high pompadours and bowling shirts in 1997, speaking an ancient language and reeking of authenticity. (My favorite photo from their online archive shows a really young Tichy, in a sweat-stained, post-gig bowling shirt, his arm slung around the diminutive form of late rock & roll guitar legend Link Wray.) Since the late ’90s, an album was said to be around the corner, but it never materialized.

Asked about that album, as they sit among equipment in the woody hunting-lodge-themed room where it all started, the band members point out that they had put together an entire LP, but never released it. “It just fell through before it came out,” recalls Carlton. “And we did another demo in between there, but we just weren’t ready.” A streak of perfectionism kept it in the vaults. “We were getting a lot better rapidly,” Tichy points out, and by the time it was ready, they didn’t think it represented where they were at the time.

They had finally locked down the classic four-piece, stand-up bass, tattoos-and-Brylcreem format of their forebears. But starting out, they didn’t search out rockabilly; it pretty much found them. “We were playing punk and not going anywhere,” Michael remembers. Carlton adds, “We were like, why not try something different? It’s the same kind of song structures and stuff [as punk], just different instrumentation.” (If you question the rockabilly-punk connection, you might want to have a few words with the Clash, Social Distortion, X, or the Blasters.)

So they retreated to this Cropseyville room in 1997, finding their way to vintage rock & roll by playing the one classic they knew, the Booker T & the MGs’ instrumental “Green Onions,” over and over. And over. “We tried to sound like Booker T and the MGs. But we didn’t have a [Hammond] B3 [organ], so were just the MGs!” claims Tichy, cracking up the room. Somehow in those repeated motions, in those long circles around a signature riff, they began to trace the group’s DNA.

They were on their feet and on local stages remarkably quickly. “It’s a learning curve,” says Tichy. “We were playing more than we knew at that point.”

Carlton laughs, “We played QE2 every week because we were like 19 and they would give us free beer.”

Tichy adds, “We found our niche locally with the true rockabilly fans and the swing dancers. Later, we sort of hit a dormant spot because that was basically our fan base, and we knew not to wear them out. And everybody found other things to keep them busy. Now I think we’re good enough where we need fans other than those that have seen us 2,000 times.”

The group also were lucky enough to get a hand up from their predecessors. Local rock & roll institution Johnny Rabb schooled Carlton on vocals in his apartment. Head Lustre King Mark Gamsjager gave Tichy gainful employment as a guitarist in a vital touring unit. (For the Lustre Kings’ efforts, they landed a spot as the touring band for Wanda Jackson, the ’50s rockabilly queen of “Fujiyama Mama” fame who once toured and kept close quarters with Elvis himself.)

Prodigal Rensselaer native and Los Straitjackets guitarist Eddie Angel (whose band earned a Grammy nomination in 2004) took them under his wing. Tichy also had the good fortune to hold down Bill Kirchen’s spot in the Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen sold-out reunion shows in San Francisco in 2004.

Here, he had the opportunity to play alongside his dad, RPI professor and onetime rock & roll star John Tichy, a founding member of that legendary group. (An argument for RPI as “most rock & roll college in the Capital Region”: Besides Tichy, the faculty boasts Langdon Winner, a onetime Rolling Stone writer-editor who penned some of the most incisive and eloquent rock criticism of the ’60s and ’70s.)

All of these activities and numerous other allegiances and memberships—while making a seasoned musician out of Tichy at least—put Rocky Velvet on hold for long periods. In recent years, any mention of the band would elicit an “Are they still around?”

But this album and the push behind it represent a new era of activity. “I don’t want to be a semi-active band,” Tichy states emphatically. He is also quick to point out that the group have evolved into the perfect vehicle for him—and for all of them. One important addition has been in the form of Jim Haggerty, a well-heeled stand-up bass man who seems to have galvanized and injected a shot of inspiration into Rocky Velvet. (He also penned a couple of album tracks.)

If you’ve followed the band at all over the years, the evolution, both live and on album, is evident. Tichy, known for years in the area as a guitar prodigy, has found even more spaces in his playing. His gentrified countrybilly rolls and his dizzying leads have allowed in something nasty lately—something perhaps handed down from Angel (and originating in Wray). Something disenfranchised, primitive and menacing.

“I think I’m getting worse,” he offers by way of unreasonable explanation, then more soundly offers that sometimes “the best solos are the ones that are like ‘bah-bah-bah-bah,’ just going berserk.” Lead singer Carlton has also let something into his stentorian, Presley-ish vocal declarations, having been infected with some degenerate garage-rock madness at times. (Think Sonics. Think Mummies. Think Rabb and Angel’s Neanderthals.)

His solo project, an explosively raw vinyl single on Spinout Records under the nom de rawk Ian & the Aztecs, is an inventive revisioning of Casey Jones and the Governors’ “Don’t Ha Ha,” featuring Eddie Angel on guitar, Tichy on bass and Los Straitjacket Jason Smay on drums. (I’ve said it before: The mild-mannered, dapper Carlton occasionally goes completely apeshit, and local music is a better place for it.)

So all of this culminates on the group’s new album, It Came From Cropseyville, which was engineered by local knob-twiddler Frank Moscowitz. “I talked to Frank a lot beforehand, and he really did his homework,” notes Tichy. “Usually the problem with recording this kind music is you have to talk people into doing things with a 1950s paradigm when there are modern techniques that are there for certain things. But they don’t sound right.”

The crisp, taut-sounding LP was recorded mostly live in the room with, notes Tichy, “Lots of ’50s gear and ’50s mic-ing techniques going on.” But, he says, “When it was beneficial for us to harness the modern technology, we embraced it.”

“Now we can put out a record that we’re really proud of,” adds Carlton.

If the album can be summed up, there’s a pulling schizophrenia between rawness and sophistication. Take the first two tracks: The opener and obscure cover “King Kong” is all tribal rhythms, buzzy guitar, jungle squeals and lyrics about the devastation that big monkey hath freaking wrought. When that romp snaps shut, the gentile western swing of Haggerty’s “Poor Poor Lonely Me” features Carlton’s silkily sincere, gentlemanly declarations and Tichy’s Chet Atkins-like sophistication (tossing off notes like he has three hands on the thing).

It’s as if the teacher suddenly entered the room, and Rocky Velvet straightened their backs, fixed their collars and folded their hands demurely on their desks. But don’t trust them, I say, and keep your hands on your wallet. These boys are bad. With intentions no better than a one-eyed cat peeping in a seafood store.

Rocky Velvet’s CD-release show will take place Saturday at 9:30 PM at Savannah’s (1 S. Pearl St., Albany).


ROUGH MIX
Andrew Whyte

SPEAKING OF “ROUGH”

Memorial Day weekend got off to an unpleasant start for Capital Region rockers Aficionado. The proudly prog ensemble (Q: How prog? A: They recently added a flautist to their lineup; not to mention the full-time lighting guy) found Saturday morning that their tour vehicle, a 1995 “short bus,” had been torched in what is assumed to be an act of arson. The bus was parked at La Salle School, across from the College of Saint Rose campus on Western Avenue, where the band members had been painting the vehicle blue to avoid it being mistaken for an operating school bus.

August Rosa, the band’s guitarist, said in an interview, “We put newspaper over the windows so the paint wouldn’t get on the chrome or the glass. We wanted to go over [the paint] again, so we left it in the lot overnight. [We think] that somebody lit the paper on the front, on the grill, which led the battery to explode, and inevitably the engine . . . ”

So far, there haven’t been any strong leads from the Albany Police or Saint Rose security, but the band members hope to find out more from security-camera footage.

Nicholas Warchol, the band’s singer (and to whom the bus was registered), wrote in a blog post on the band’s MySpace site, “Saint Rose surveillance cameras have video footage of one person standing near the bus in the minutes prior to the fire. When this video is turned over to police, hopefully the image can be enhanced in order to reveal the identity of the unknown arsonist.”

The bus, which had taken the band on two lengthy tours in the 18-or-so months they owned it, had been recently renovated. Says Rosa, “We’d actually turned the whole inside into pretty much a living room, like, the day before. We were all excited about it.” Now they are left contemplating the next move, their bus totaled and insurance unlikely to cover their losses. Rosa says they have been offered a loan by a friend’s family, and that they are likely to accept, but that this will create debt that the band will have a hard time recouping. On the bright side, the band’s gear was stored elsewhere, so as long as they can find transportation, the show will go on.

Tonight’s (Thursday, May 31) show in State College, Pa., has been canceled, but, says Rosa, Aficionado—who released the rather unfortunately titled One Unfortunate Event After Another CD in early May—have no intention of canceling any further dates. Those dates include an ambitious trek that will take them across the country and back through July and early August; they also have a handful of regional dates scheduled between now and the tour’s July 7 kickoff.

A benefit show, to help the band raise money for a new ride, has been scheduled for June 23 at Basilica Industria in Hudson, and, Rosa says, an Albany benefit is in the works for around the same time. Check back here for more details as they are announced. In the meantime, visit the band at myspace.com/aficionado.

 

TROY MIGHT BE GIANTS The City of Troy’s 4th Annual River Street Festival takes place on June 16. WEQX is handling the live music for the second year in a row, and this year’s lineup is shaping up to be a good one. Michigan-based harmonizers Tally Hall will make a return appearance, while the headliners will be none other than They Might Be Giants. By my count, this will be roughly the 50th free TMBG show in the Capital Region—they should get a trophy, and it should be shaped like the Egg. Loads more acts are scheduled to perform, including a bunch of local acts yet to be announced. For more on the event, visit weqx.com or troyny.org.

—John Brodeur



Send A Letter to Our Editor
Back Home
   
 
 
Copyright © 2002 Lou Communications, Inc., 419 Madison Ave., Albany, NY 12210. All rights reserved.