Clubland: Free Range Cats

  • Free Range Cats. Photo by Julian Parker-Burnes

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Greg Eramo, in 2011, was a drummer with a mission: to get together some groovy players and make instrumental music that inspires audiences.

“I wanted to create an all-inclusive funky band that engages with a crowd, that gets people off their butt and onto their feet and dancing,” he said in an interview with Clubland last month.

Eramo got proactive and put together Free Range Cats, a band that evolved into its current six-piece lineup — Dave Trenholm on sax, Eric Olsson on guitar, Bob Richards on the MalletKAT percussion instrument, Dan Belmont on keyboards, Conor Dowling on bass, and Eramo behind the drum kit. Guest singers often join in the fun. 

The band’s next show is at New City Brewery in Easthampton on Saturday, May 19 at 8 p.m., with guest vocalists Kaliis Smith (Ex-Temper, Soul Magnets) and Frank Padellaro (King Radio, Simple Friend). Lisa Palumbo will perform a solo set to open the show.

Eramo, 49, moved from Framingham to the Valley back in 1989. “Everyone I knew from high school was coming here,” he said. So at age 20, he followed suit.

It was the era of Sheehan’s, the popular Northampton pub/venue on Pleasant Street, now long gone and legendary. Eramo played his first local gig there with the band Southgoing Zax.

He’s been busy with various bands ever since, but it was always someone else’s vision, and he finally decided to pursue his own. 

“Since I’m a drummer who’s never learned to do anything else but be a drummer, I was pretty dependent upon a songwriter, or at least somebody who wanted to take the reins. So I said, ‘I’m just going to try this, I’m going to just reach out.’ ”

Eramo first asked his bassist friend Dowling to join (“Conor’s my guy. No Conor, no band”) and then posted an ad on Craigslist. Of those who responded, keyboardist Belmont is the one who stuck around to the present day.

Part of the drummer’s mission was to get busy multi-instrumentalist/arranger/composer/musical genius Dave Trenholm involved in the project, so Eramo walked into Trenholm’s longtime workplace, Downtown Sounds. 

“It was kind of a nerve-wracking moment. I said, ‘Dave, I want you to come to my house with your horn. No charts. I just want to play music with you.’ One of my hopes is that this is an indefinite project where we’re just going to hang out as often as we can. And he said OK, and he’s been coming back ever since.”

“It’s such a privilege to play with him,” Eramo said. “I call him ‘The Human Snark’ (referring to the famous brand of instrument tuner). Rhythmically, everything, he hears it once and says, ‘Yeah, yeah, I got it.’”

Trenholm solidified the core four of Free Range Cats, and then came Richards, who was asked to learn a mini set and soon became a full-time member, and then Olsson joined last year, adding his funky guitar.

Together they’ve learned around 50 songs. There’s one original composition — “Kotekan,” written by Dowling — and everything else in the set is a cover of a tune they love. 

The song that’s still in the Free Range Cats repertoire since their early days is “Shakedown,” a funky 1990 instrumental by London group the Brand New Heavies, a song that Eramo said encapsulates “exactly what I envisioned” for his own band.

In recent years, the group evolved further to include guest vocalists. Frank Padellaro sings a couple tunes, one of which is Jorge Ben’s spirited samba “Take It Easy My Brother Charles.” Kaliis Smith has at least six songs in the spotlight, including energetic crowd pleasers like Amy Winehouse’s “Valerie” and Prince’s “I Feel for You.”

“Really, from a drummer’s perspective, there’s nothing more exciting than playing and watching people get up and respond physically to what you’re doing,” Eramo said.