Ken Maiuri’s Clubland: King Radio’s ‘Are You the Sick Passenger?’ live

  • Frank Padellaro rehearses the King Radio string section in Northampton earlier this week. String players left are Chris Devine, Izzy Davidson-Blythe, Carol Hutter and Philip Helzer. Brandi Ediss photo

For the Gazette
Published: 10/24/2019 9:46:24 AM

“Audacious” is a word that comes up regularly when Frank Padellaro thinks back on the career-so-far of his band King Radio.

It’s a quality that’s been there since the group’s earliest days, when Padellaro wrote an entire rock opera about the mall (though only one song got released by King Radio on its debut album, the heartfelt piano ballad “King of the Food Court”). For the band’s second record, member Dave Trenholm wrote a full-blown orchestral score for the song “1974,” and Padellaro recorded all 26 symphonic instruments in his Hadley basement studio. (Not all at one time.)

And then came the big leap forward, “Are You the Sick Passenger?”, King Radio’s third album and the one of which Padellaro is most proud (so far, anyway). Inspired by the “gentle side of AM pop,” it’s a collection of songs that are meticulously arranged but with plenty of breathing room, where a bare bones acoustic guitar can bloom into a sweeping Technicolor landscape of keyboards, woodwinds, a string section, steady heartbeat drums, and a typewriter as a featured instrument. It’s a different animal than the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds,” but it was made with a similar combination of inspiration, severe perspiration, and love.

To celebrate the album’s 15th anniversary, King Radio will perform “Are You the Sick Passenger?” in its entirety for the first time ever, joined by a string quartet and a trumpet player, at the Iron Horse in Northampton on Thursday, November 7, at 7 p.m. Will the entire 13-piece group fit on the stage? They’re crossing their fingers. Amsterdam-based one-woman-band G. T. Thomas opens the show.

One of the important first steps in that album’s formation was Padellaro hearing a song by Peter Baldwin’s band Hercules on a mix tape he got from a friend. “It was this gorgeous, sad, baroque little song with strings and was very appealing,” Padellaro said in an interview last week. “You could really hear all the influences I was thinking about for King Radio going forward, especially Burt Bacharach, the Beach Boys and newer bands like the High Llamas.”

Padellaro asked Baldwin to collaborate on a new King Radio album, and Baldwin was willing to be the producer — but only under certain conditions. He asked for full creative control (including deciding which songs would or wouldn’t make it on the record, as well as rearranging and re-writing the tunes as he saw fit), he would be the bass player, and Padellaro would have to fix his broken guitars and cook meals for him during the recording sessions at Padellaro’s Hadley home.

“It seemed like a little too much for me,” Padellaro admitted thinking at first. But with his band, marriage and business all in various states of upheaval anyway, he decided Baldwin’s requests weren’t deal breakers.

He started filling his house with another of Baldwin’s requirements — he had to have on the premises a tuned and working acoustic piano, two different electric pianos and a Hammond organ. Instruments and gear took over Padellaro’s living room and dining room, spilling into the kitchen.

The two agreed on a system of vetoes, which resulted in Padellaro being unable to include what he felt was one of the album’s strongest songs. “Peter didn’t like it. I was adamant, but I gave that song up in order to block some things from the album that he really liked but I hated,” Padellaro said. (The song in question, “In Stereo,” will be released on King Radio’s long-in-the-works follow-up album, “Cloverleafs and Roundabouts,” in late 2020.)

The songs on “Are You the Sick Passenger?” were recorded in a way that, for a while, confounded Padellaro. Guitars and keyboards were tracked first, with rough vocals, then drums. When Baldwin added his rhythmic bass parts, many of them stayed on one note while the chords changed, a technique called “pedaling.” It wasn’t until they began recording and adding Trenholm’s violin, viola and cello parts that the album that had been in Baldwin’s head came into focus for Padellaro.

“Suddenly the pedaling bass, which has seemed so monotonous, became secure footing on which these amazing string parts could soar. Once we’d tracked the strings, the rest of the album made sense to me.”

The record was mixed by in-demand engineer Mitch Easter (R.E.M., Velvet Crush, Let’s Active, Helium), and originally released on the local Spirithouse label by Paul McNamara and Danny Bernini.

But then it was time to play these precisely constructed songs in a concert situation, and King Radio was changed forever.

“Folks like Greg Saulmon on guitar were added to fill out the live show to match the recordings. Dave Trenholm, who had previously been primarily a guitar player in the band, plays guitar, flute and keyboards. He’s this amazing musical force of nature.”

Padellaro and company even attempted to take the complicated show on the road.

“On tour I was contacting the biggest music school in every city we were scheduled to play, trying to find a string trio of students willing to play for our regular gig pay — pretty low,” he said.

“Whatever professor replied to me would try to round up some students. I would email charts to the players (before you could send a song very easily via email), but they wouldn’t know the songs. They would show up to the gig and I’d have to install temporary pickups on their instruments. We might have 20 minutes to try and go over troublesome parts on a couple of the hardest songs, and then it was ‘jump on stage and let it fly.’”

For this 15th anniversary show, the string section is a family reunion of sorts, including two musicians who played on the original album (violinist Chris Devine and cellist Philip Helzer), plus longtime collaborator Carol Hutter on viola and Izzy Davidson-Blythe on violin.

In addition to Padellaro, Trenholm and Saulmon, the King Radio lineup also includes keyboardist, vocalist and Padellaro’s fiancee Brandi Ediss, bassist Dave Hayes, this writer on keyboards, drummer Paul Pelis, and percussionist Chuck Ferreira.

Due to the insanely hard logistics of coordinating 13 different schedules, the string players and the full band won’t have any rehearsals together before they take their places on the Iron Horse stage. “The show is the first time we’ll hear the whole majesty of it all,” Padellaro said. “We’ll be in the same boat as the audience in that regard, and that is really exciting.”

“Are You the Sick Passenger?” transformed Padellaro’s band, and it also helped rid him of a “feeling of disappointment.”

“In the past, I’d made records I can objectively say are pretty good, but I always knew where we cut corners or struggled. “Sick Passenger,” for better or worse, was a completely realized version of my artistic vision for the product. I was happy with every performance. We had it mixed by one of the best engineers (to my taste) and I can stand proudly behind every decision we made and how those decisions turned out on the record. It’s taken away some of that chip I always had on my shoulder.”

As a present to celebrate Padellaro’s finishing his doctorate last fall, Ediss secured the rights to the “Sick Passenger” album so that it can be released on vinyl for the first time, with its originally intended running order and new cover art. The LP, due out in December, can be pre-ordered at the Iron Horse show.

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




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