The Vortis Diaries: Ghosts of bands past

January 19, 2012

Second only to true love, no bond in life is tighter or endures longer than one with someone you’ve made music with.

Friendship and shared experience are part of it, of course—all of those hours spent rehearsing, recording, performing, and waiting to perform, to say nothing of crossing the country huddled together in a wreck of a van, or sleeping side by side on someone’s floor, if touring was involved. But it goes deeper that that.

When you play with a group that really clicks, you instinctively come to sense where your bandmates are going next, following their lead or guiding them where you want to go. You laugh with commiseration at their missteps, or your own; celebrate spontaneous moments of inspiration, and conduct running commentaries on everything happening on stage, in the room… and in the universe. At the risk of waxing mystical, this ability transcends verbal communication, or even visual exchanges. It’s a sort of telepathy, and it doesn’t fade with time.

Vortis has been plenty busy of late: The group played the Double Door last Friday with pals Anxiety High (who are about to go on hiatus), and did an hour on WLUW’s Razor & Die show just before the new year (the audio can be found here). But it was the ghosts of bands past that were on my mind through the holidays, and though I adamantly avoid living in the past, they were welcome visitors indeed.

Speed the Plough and Jay Orff both released new albums in the waning days of 2011. One initially greets new sounds from old collaborators with a bit of trepidation—again, like the letter from an old love—even when you’re not a music critic, and even when you’re not somehow expected to publicly comment on them. But there’s a sense of excitement, too, and promise, and even some pride, as if you had some small, abstract role in their creation, having once been central to it. The music may be unfamiliar at first, but soon enough, that old intimacy comes rushing back, and that indelible connection is renewed in a way that social networking couldn’t begin to match.

I already had played in a dozen groups by the time I joined Speed the Plough in the mid-’80s, but I’ve always considered it my first “adult” band. I was 21, and the three key players at the core of the project—keyboardist-vocalist John Baumgartner, his wife, woodwinds player and vocalist Toni Paruta Baumgartner, and their lifelong friend, guitarist and vocalist Marc Francia—couldn’t have been more than a decade older. Yet, on top of their already long history, they shared a mature approach to the playful act of making music alien to the band worlds I’d known, where somebody invariably was late, couldn’t afford decent gear or rent for the rehearsal space, injected needless drama into things just for the heck of it, or otherwise messed up in myriad juvenile ways, disrespecting the project and everyone involved in it.

When Speed the Plough gathered to rehearse every Sunday night in the attic of the Baumgartners’ comfy, Laura Ashley-accented house in Haledon, New Jersey, a leafy suburb in Passaic County, everyone showed up on time, ready and eager to create, and full of mutual respect, if not love. Toni might make brownies or French press coffee when you arrived; John always had a stash of tasty imported beers on hand, and you were welcome to smoke a joint in the living room. In short, this was the first band that made me realize that playing rock ’n’ roll wasn’t just an activity for screwed-up teenagers; you could be a grown-up and still make a glorious noise. And, oh, that noise.

Speed the Plough circa 1989.
 

The group played an introspective, hypnotic, and gently psychedelic brand of folk-rock. Francia and the Baumgartners had first made their mark on the music world as part of the Trypes, an offshoot of the legendary Feelies, some of whom they knew from high school. They shared that band’s kinetic, backwards backbeats, but took a more nuanced, seductive, elliptical, and orchestral tact, with more Fairport Convention, George Harrison, Philip Glass, Penguin Café Orchestra, and Brian Eno in the mix. They issued one brilliant EP, The Explorer’s Hold, in 1984 (streaming now on Speed the Plough’s Web site), but when the Feelies got too busy touring after their second album The Good Earth, the non-Feelies Trypes regrouped with a new lineup and a new name (which came from a Scottish folk song, not the Mamet play).

I played drums and percussion on the first self-titled Speed the Plough album in 1989, but left in 1991, when I moved to Minneapolis. Yet through long stretches of seeming inactivity, and quite a few lineup changes, the band never stopped going, driven by that core threesome, and eventually including John and Toni’s son Mike on guitar and Marc’s sons Ian and Dan on drums and bass, as my buddy Jim Testa wrote in this 2010 profile. Five more albums followed the debut, including the latest, Shine, released last Fall on Dromedary Records, and possibly the best in the band’s discography.

The group hasn’t altered the formula it’s honed for more than three decades now: The ebb-and-flow crescendos, John’s slippery keyboard lines, Toni’s simple but beautiful flute and sax parts and angelic vocals, and Marc’s bedrock rhythm guitar sound exactly as they always have. But the fragile but insistent guitar leads, especially those from new member Ed Seifert, add a welcome edge, and songs such as “In My Book,” “Madeleine,” and “Sea of Tranquility” have a timeless, magical feel that places them among the very best the group has written.

Do I lack the objectivity to say that? I don’t think so. The last time I saw John, who always had a bit of the Billy Corgan dictatorial taskmaster in him, he cut me with a crack along the lines of, “So, you’ve done pretty well with this whole rock-critic shtick of just trying to piss people off,” which hardly is my modus operandi (or at least not more than one out of a thousand times). I’d love to stick it to him as payback—though not to Toni or Marc, who were as sweet as ever—but I just can’t. Shine is a quiet masterpiece.

As for the other voice recently resurfaced from my musical past, there never was any hint of iron-will dictator there; in fact, Jay Orff always has been the sort of artist wracked by self-doubt, forever second-guessing or selling himself short, despite his massive talents as a poetic lyricist and an architect of wonderfully subtle, slyly insinuating folk-rock melodies.

Jay Orff.

The winter of 1996 was one of the coldest and snowiest on record in Minneapolis, which really is saying something, and it was a difficult time for Jay, recently ejected from the cozy cocoon of academia and sporting a severely broken heart; our friend Devin Hill, an amazing guitarist troubled by more self-doubt than Jay, questioning whether he even wanted to make music any more, and me, struggling to support a newborn and figure out what I was going to do with my life while freelancing after an ignominious departure from Rolling Stone.

Together, we found catharsis from the bitter sub-zero chill, our fears and uncertainties, and collected psychic wounds by recording an album of Jay’s songs that came to be called Devils & Darlings. The sound? Imagine what Nick Drake circa Pink Moon might have been like if he’d had more Dylan/Minnesota in him, a view of Middle America and its dreams and nightmares akin to that of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, and an obsession with the otherworldly, midnight voodoo vibe of Los Lobos’ Kiko and the Lavender Moon. (There is very little straightforward drumming on the record, in part because we were shooting for the way Daniel Lanois had built that disc’s undulating rhythms from layer upon layer of odd percussive clatter.)

Jay has kept busy in the years since, as a writer of slightly skewed, discretely subversive, but very moving prose and a director of short films that share those same, sometimes obtuse qualities. (I’ve come to consider any film or short story that ends without resolution, just like real life, as having “an Orffian ending.”) He also has a fascinating day job, as one of the key people behind Magnetic Poetry, those great sets of little magnetic words that turn any refrigerator into a showcase for smutty haiku. And, needless to say, he has kept making music, self-releasing another half-dozen collections of beautiful, introspective, and intensely personal sonic missives, though none resonate more than his latest, Your Heart on the Stage of Desire.

Swirling, atmospheric, and endearing songs such as “Ice Machine,” “Blue Moon,” “Greeting Card from Walgreens,” and “The Daffodil” evoke a graceful balancing act on the tightrope separating despair and optimism, desire and repulsion, and emptiness and fulfillment. This is the product of another of life’s stretches of emotional turbulence, this one even more disruptive than the dark days of ’96, but who among us hasn’t been there and can’t relate? You don’t have to be an old friend to pull for Jay to thrive as he emerges on the other side, or to be moved by and find inspiration in his journey.

THE VORTIS DIARIES

Sept. 12, 2011: Everything Falls Apart

July 27, 2011: Record Release Party

May 31, 2011: Rock 'n' roll rituals

Mar. 9, 2011: Stage patter sucks

Jan. 27, 2011: Finding catharsis at Cal’s

Dec. 15, 2010: An evening at Pancho’s, the new (and far superior) Ronny’s

Nov. 14, 2010: A trip to Milwaukee

Oct. 11, 2010: Dance Fever

Aug. 30, 2010: A road trip to Madison

July 26, 2010: A weekend at Wall to Wall

July 12, 2010: An evening with F*cked Up

June 21, 2010: Six hours at Ronny’s on a Saturday night