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Ken Maiuri: Tunes pour freely at birthday party for Ray Mason Band bassist



Wednesday, August 19, 2015
The big 5-0. How do you celebrate such a birthday? Stephen Desaulniers, the longtime bassist of the Ray Mason Band and Scud Mountain Boys — who also books an average of three shows a month at the Luthier’s Co-op in Easthampton — threw himself a party last Friday night, his birthday eve, packing the night with some of his favorite musicians.

The Luthier’s Co-op is a venue/bar/instrument store, its walls lined with guitars of every style — a perfect setting for a six-string-powered show that starred Boston’s clever guitar instrumental crew The Weisstronauts, local pop supergroup Ray Mason Band and the first-ever appearance of Half Ached, the new project from fellow Scuds/RMB member Tom Shea.

The Weisstronauts are an instrumental rock/spy/surf/twang band, modern relatives of The Ventures and all their offspring (Shadowy Men On a Shadowy Planet, Man or Astro-man? and Los Straitjackets, to name three).

Led by guitarist/recording engineer/tireless musicmaker Pete Weiss and guitarist Kenny Lafler (who’ve been playing together for 15 years), The Weisstronauts follow some traditions, like giving their mostly wordless tunes such colorful names as “Tabasco Fiasco,” “Hoopin’” and “Psychedelic Whiplash.” But they also put their own spin on the genre, with Weiss and Lafler fluidly shifting lead and rhythm duties every few seconds, throwing in unexpected chord changes and even messing with the audience’s collective head.

For example, their cleverly titled tune “BABACAB.” It began like an early Les Paul tune, with the two guitarists playing skittish little descending notes in harmony over a train rhythm ... then it veered into a seemingly unrelated noisy spaced-out section that drifted on forever, like the Star Gate sequence in 2001, before eventually flipping back into the earlier country catchiness to end the song.

The rhythm section of bassist Jeff Norcross and drummer Nate Logus added some zip to “Theo’s El Camino” (a cover of a tune by the late Charlie Chesterman, a good friend of both Weiss and the Ray Mason Band), as well as a version of the James Bond theme that moved freely through different feels, from western chug to beach blanket twist to “Psychotic Reaction” swing.

The Weisstronauts loved the vibe of the Luthier’s, complementing both the surroundings and the people (“You’re much nicer than those A-holes back in Boston,” joked Lafler). The mellow guys were great players, creative composers and knew the power of a well-placed F major seventh chord. Check out their Bandcamp page for song samples, or visit http://www.weisstronauts.com for more info.

The Ray Mason Band filled the middle spot on the bill with a 15-song set of eclectic pop/rock that included catchy classic originals plus covers of Neil Young, The Lovin’ Spoonful and the Rockin’ Ramrods. Regular readers of this column know I’m a huge fan of Mason, but every time I see a live show by him and his band (drummer Frank Marsh, bassist Desaulniers and guitarist Shea), that fandom, respect and joy jumps up another notch — their musicianship and camaraderie never disappoints.

And watching the quartet power through Mason’s unforgettably upbeat-yet-melancholy “Always Stay,” it made me think how so many history-aware indie labels these days are putting out deluxe reissues of regional acts that the world should really know about — Mason’s vast back catalog is overflowing with perfect pop songs that deserve a bigger audience, with remixed/remastered sound and a photo-filled 60-page hardcover book. Maybe someday.

(If you want to catch the RMB in action, their next show is at the Holyoke Elks Summer Concert Series at 250 Whitney Ave in Holyoke, a free rain-or-shine show on Saturday at 6 p.m.) Starting off the triple-bill early in the eve was Tom Shea’s new project Half Ached, its live lineup consisting of Keith Levreault on drums and Jim Weeks on backing vocals and bass (Weeks recorded the debut album, due out soon).

Back in the Bay State era Shea had a band called Hoolapopper, and he played some tunes from that old group, but otherwise it was a night of new songs and smart-aleck wisecracks ricocheting around the room between old friends (“Is this like a roast?” Ray Mason said from the crowd at one point, throwing in his own jokey two cents).

“I don’t like the Beatles / that’s what I said” was the opening lyric of the first new tune Shea played, a definite attention-getter. “Know This Game” showed off his Lindsey Buckingham-esque soloing, adding a dramatic wailing vibrato up on the higher frets. For the guitar solo of “American Dream,” Shea sang in unison with the notes, like Dinosaur Jr meets George Benson.

Shea’s impish sense of humor got him gently taunting the calmly-seated-in-the-audience Desaulniers throughout the set, promising a birthday surprise. The smiling guitarist finally got him up on stage. “You ready?” he asked Desaulniers, who had no idea what was going to happen, so he was, in fact, not ready at all. (As he told me in a follow-up interview earlier this week, “I know it sounds weird from a guy throwing himself a 50th birthday party, but I don’t want a lot of attention paid to myself.”)

For a few seconds, Desaulniers paced around his part of the stage with an Ed Sullivan scowl, arms crossed tight on themselves. But when Shea and his bandmates kicked into the opening chords of Desaulniers’ own song “Strawberry Brown” (due out later this year on the debut album of his new project, Invisible Runner), he started reconfiguring the microphone stand to get down to business, singing with focus and strength.

Desaulniers later explained how Shea, Weeks and Levreault had stealthily learned the unreleased track, without him knowing a thing. He called it “the sweetest birthday present.”

Ken Maiuri can be reached at clublandcolumn@gmail.com.