Monday, September 28, 2009

Ex-Roadsteamer guitarist playing the blues

By J. C. Lockwood
Sunday morning. Peter Tentindo's on the phone, croaking out an apology about something, it's hard to tell what exactly ... Oh, wait. It's about his croaking: The former Robbie Roadsteamer guitarist blew out his voice after four weekend shows with Britannica, the classic rock outfit fronted by "Grateful" Ted Solovikos.

Luckily for the Danvers axeman, the throat issue should have no impact on his next big gig — a performance that does not require any singing. Or any other musicians, for that matter. No, it's not a solo instrumental show. Not exactly. It's not even really a concert. And it pays way better than most shows. He's earned a spot in Round 2, the district level, of Guitar Center's King of the Blues competition. It's still a long road to the Hollywood House of Blues finals, but if he gets through this round and the next, he's got a shot at a $25,000 payday. And endorsement deals. And national ink. And gear. And bragging rights for being "the nation's top undiscovered blues guitarist."

Yeah, there's a lot riding on one short, tense gig that takes place under some pretty unnatural circumstances. You get five minutes to set up, you play your part against a pre-recorded backing track, you get out of the way so the next guy can crash through his "set" and then you wait for a three-member panel to give its marks, deciding whether you move on to the next round. "It's pretty nerve-racking," says Tentindo, who actually got his start in a similar, if significantly less profitable showdown eight years ago, as a high school student, when he won the Almost Famous: Next Generation of Guitar" competition — and a chance to play at the old House of Blues in Cambridge. The tune that got him there was an early version of his guitar instrumental "Reflections," which was on his post-high school solo album.

He's lived in Danvers all his life. Well, there was the short time in Revere, but we don't count that. His father Ken Tentindo was a musician, who played guitar in the Wildkats, a band that made a lot of local noise during the 1960s. Peter Tentino got his first guitar when he was 10 years old and learned his way around the instrument. He grabbed the spotlight during the "Almost Famous" competition, then released "Reflections," shortly after graduating from Danvers High School. He moved on to Salem State College, where, despite his rocker ambitions, he broadened his musical horizons, playing in the college jazz ensemble, and grabbed academic accolades, like the President's Art Scholarship and Creative Arts Award. Then in 2005, he landed a slot playing guitar with Robbie Roadsteamer, a bizarre musical hybrid that combined music, comedy and something approaching theater, but with a World Wide Wrestling kind of attitude — an often rude, usually hysterical and histrionic parody metalband blowout fronted by a Louis Robert Potylo, coincidently another Oniontown resident. It was a wild, two-year ride for Tentindo. He performed on, and wrote for, two Roadsteamer albums ("Postcards from the Den of Failures" in 2006 and "I'll Be at Your Funeral" in 2007) and played some high-profile gigs, like the Warpred tour. It was his first real band. "It really opened my eyes," he says. "I learned how to be a performer, but, more importantly, I learned that this is what I wanted to do with the rest of my life."

Then last year, without warning, Roadsteamer came to an abrupt and, considering the frontman's outrageous, high-decibel personality, quiet end, calling it quits last year without a public word of explanation. Even Tentindo doesn't have a clear idea what happened exactly, saying it's possible that Potylo finally grew weary of the character. The guitarist surveyed the post-Roadsteamer environment, trying to plot his next move, when he ran into Solovikos at an open mike at Mandrake Bistro in Beverly. "Something clicked," says Tentindo, who also teaches guitar and piano at the Music & Dance Connection in Danvers. Best known for his work with Smuggler, the 1980s North Shore rock band that collapsed just after landing a big record deal, Solovikos invited Tentindo to join Britannica, his new band, which focuses on British Invasion covers, but does some original material as well. Formed last year, the band has been playing out regularly and will be featured during Salem's Haunted Happenings for the second year running.

But right now Tentindo is focusing on two things: One, getting his voice back. And, two, locking up the district finals for the King of the Blues gig, which take place next week in Boston. He says he's not nervous about the competition, despite its stakes. "I'll do my best," he says. "What happens happens. I'm confident. I'm ready to do this."

JUST THE FACTS: Peter Tentindo will perform in the district finals of the King of the Blues competition September 30 at the Guitar Center, 1255 Boylston St, Boston. The competition starts at 7 p.m. Performance times are determined by a drawing just before the music begins. For more information, call (617) 247-1389. For more information about Tentindo, log onto

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Cutthroat looks beyond the North Shore

Okay, so here's the way they look at it: The band has been blowing out eardrums and offending people in fun and interesting ways for about eight years now and has scored some pretty big successes along the way — especially as a live act. But time's come to face facts: Things just aren't happening on the North Shore and it's time to deal with that inescapable fact. So when Captain Cutthroat takes the stage this week at Dodge Street, it could very well be the last time the hard-edged, hard-working and, let's not sugar-coat it, borderline psychotic Salem rockers play a local show, according to frontman Phil DeSisto, who has already blown town.

So this is the way it's gonna go: Cutthroat will play Aug. 7 at Dodge Street in Salem, previewing all the songs that will be on "Maciste," its upcoming album. In October, they're taking off to San Francisco to record the album — at Sharkbite Studio with Billy Anderson, the guy behind albums by Mr. Bungle and the Melvins, among others, in the producer's chair. They've got a couple of dates lined up, including a show at the notorious Viper Room in Los Angeles and a Halloween show in San Francisco, probably the only other location in the United States that could give Salem a run for its money in Halloween Weird. When they get back, the band will start booking East Coast dates to promote the album, then start planning a European tour with the German rock band — and fellow 2006 Emergenza Festival finalists — that goes by the acronym MBWTEYP, probably a good thing since the name is, um, edgy? My Baby Wants to Eat Your Pussy.

Scheduled for release in late fall, “Maciste” takes its name from a Hercules-like character who first appears in a 1914 Italian silent movie, but he's in dozens of films, all of which deal in the big mythic three: black arts, evil rulers and super-hot love interests who need rescuing and loving, not necessarily in that order. In the film DeSisto saw, the dude ends up in Hell and charms the pants off everyone, including the devil. Gotta love that.

Like the band’s eponymous 2007 debut, “Maciste” will be a wild ride of sounds and styles, from “Waiting to Burn, a fairly straightforward rocker born of breakup, to “The Opening of Mouths” (Get your mind out of the gutter. it’s about the final process of the Egyptian mummification ritual) which DeSisto describes as “probably the heaviest thing we’ve ever done,” hinting at Sabbath or, maybe, Neurosis, another Anderson-produced act whose sound, like Cutthroat’s, bleeds across styles: in their case, from hardcore and doom to ambient and industrial.

Captain Cutthroat has been described as providing the soundtrack for an ADD generation, music for people with short attention spans and a never-ending jones for visual and sonic distractions — and seemingly odd musical departures that make sense only within the context of the band’s odd, explosive unformula. Which is probably the only way you could have an album with both soul-crushing weight, like “Opening of the Mouth,” and what DeSisto describes as “a swing tune” called “Dakota,” inspired by a magazine article (“I’m a National Geographic junkie,” the singer says.) about a suddenly abandoned town. The tune will feature a guest appearance by Morphine saxophonist Dana Colley.

Cutthroat’s been hitting it in one form or another since 2002, playing local haunts and building a reputation as a tough-as-nails live act. In late 2005, the band entered the Emergenza Festival as a way to boost its profile. and did it, demolishing the competition and earning a slot for the final showdown in Rothenburg, Germany in 2006. Their debut album with all the crowd favorites, like “Horror Song” and “Deep in the Freaks,” followed. There have been some big shows since, but the band has been unable to break out of its North Shore slump and, ultimately, break through. They’re hoping the new record, with Anderson as producer, will help them kick down a few more doors and break out of what they see as a regional rut. That’s why the band will be focusing on away dates — and they’re telling local fans to chill.

"Nothing personal,” says DeSisto. “It's time to move on. We can't just sit around here any more. We’ve got to make it happen.”

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: Captain Cutthroat will play all the songs from "Maciste," its new album, Aug. 7 at Dodge Street Bar & Grille, 7 Dodge St., Salem. Ho-Ag and Hara Kiri open. This is Cutthroat's last local show scheduled for the year. For more information about the gig, call 978-745-0139. For more information about the band, click here.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Harry Skoler back in the swing of things

By J. C. Lockwood
The last time we spoke with Harry Skoler, and it's been a while, he seemed a bit confused: Didn't know who was calling, didn't know why we were calling. Obviously we had just woken him up. In the middle of the afternoon. Pffft! Jazz musicians, right? No big deal, a couple of minutes to shake the cobwebs free and off we’d go. But, no. We didn't know it at the time, but the Merrimack Valley clarinetist was dealing with sleep issues and real shuteye was precious — and rare — and we had shaken him from a sleep so profound that, to this day, he does not remember the conversation or the interview. Not a bad interview, though, especially for a guy in his sleep.

That was in the late 1990s, when the clarinetist was on a creative tear, releasing three critically acclaimed albums: two with his seriously road-tested quartet, which featured vibraphonist Ed Saindon; the other line-up a much more ambitious affair that included guitars, as well as piano and arrangements by Donn Trenner. Since then, Skoler's public profile has faded, as he not so much retreated from the scene as he embraced family life, which now includes a college-age son and two daughters, both adopted from China — and financial demands that call the tune. Not that he considers the Berklee teaching gig or private students especially onerous, but, combined with the day-to-day with family, they divert the creative spirit to more practical concerns. Again, not that it's a bad thing. Says Skoler, "I wouldn't have it any other way."

But this time, he was raring to go, despite being a bit beaten up by a trans-Atlantic flight. Skoler is just getting back into the swing of things after his recent return from a small tour with a very big profile, a centennial celebration of Benny Goodman, with Felix Peikli, an 18-year-old Norwegian wunderkind, in Oslo. And now, back home, he's in the process of getting the quartet back together and touring to support "Two Ones," his fourth release — and first in more than a decade. The album, with virtually no active promotion, is already making a dent in the charts, one of the top "most added" albums in June, according to JazzWeek’s Jazz Charts — a push predicated, most likely, on the fact that two cuts ("Hope" and "Piazzolla") were featured as musical interludes on NPR’s "Morning Edition" and its audience of 13 million listeners.

Released last month on Soliloquy Records, "Two Ones" is a wonderful (or "Onederful," as one of the tunes would have it) little disc wrapped inside a big concept that is not immediately apparent — like the series of line drawings on the cover that are not visible except in direct natural light. It’s one album, but it’s divided into two, opening with seven pieces performed by a quintet with the somewhat unusual combination of clarinet, flute and vibes, followed by eight pieces with Saindon, switching to piano, and Skoler, playing as a duo. Or, as they used to say in the Skoler family, as “two ones,” the clarinetist explaining that his daughter Amelia, as a young girl, never wanted two of anything, but wanted one in each hand, which she called two ones. Skoler uses the idea as the emotional starting point for “Two Onederful” on the duo side, but the tune also echoes — conceptually, at least — Saindon’s “Two as One” from the quintet side.

The album, which Skoler dedicates to the memory of his parents, is very much about family. Nowhere is that more clear than on "Dad's Clarinet," which opens the duet "side" of the recording. It's a poignant, haunting ballad Skoler wrote for his father, a classical clarinetist in the 1930s, who recently died — a recording all the more emotionally charged because he plays his father's clarinet. In addition to "Two Onederful, which the liner notes show, he dedicates "with all my heart" to his daughter Amelia, the duet side also includes "Don't Say Words," which he decidates "with all my other heart" to daughter Gianna. Two songs on the duet side ("Song for Jessy" and "Jenna's Voice") were inspired by two ones of sisters, daughters of close friends — making them, almost, family. Like Saindon and Skoler, who have been performing and recording together so long that they're like an old musical married couple — they've heard all the old stories, they can finish each other's sentences, anticipate where the conversation is going and get there quickly. But, perhaps more important, like old marrieds, they are so comfortable with each other they do not fear the inevitable silences, which allow the sparse arrangements room to breathe, invisibly underlining the quiet serenity of beautifully enunciated phrases almost whispered in the listener's ear. The songs are lovely, lyrical and hopeful. The interplay between the two musicians is a well-understood, intricate dance.

As different as the quintet "side" is from the duets in terms of form and structure, there should be no big surprises for longtime fans — and that's a good thing. Big surprises often translate into big headaches for families. It's always been about the group thing, about improvisation, about musical conversations, with the pieces becoming soundtracks to little films. Essentially, it's about storytelling — this time with flutist Matt Marvuglio, bassist Barry Smith and drummer Bob Tamagni joining in on the conversation. In this, the two are tied to the five by one song, done two ways: the Saindon composition "Joyful Sorrow" is performed as a quintet and as a duo — two ones, the duality of emotion in the title also hinting at the concept. The disc ends on a sadly upbeat note, the wistful "Hope," which has the feel like a last dance of a wonderful night out — sad for its ending, overflowing with its memory.

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: Harry Skoler's "Two Ones" can be purchased on iTunes, CDbaby and the usual download sites. For more information, or to get a taste of the new album, log onto

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Really bugged by Ray Mason's latest CD

In a sane world, we'd be allowed to lock up Ray Mason — that's the guy, to the left — under some provision of an expanded Son of Sam law for writing songs like "Eloise Please," one of those impossible tunes that bores into your brain and, having set up comfortable digs, absolutely refuses to leave — you know, the kind you find yourself humming without thinking about it, long after it has disappeared from your rearview. Bright and poppy, with an irritatingly catchy chorus, the song is about a poor schlump who can't get past the all-consuming love of the moment, but, very cleverly, doubles as an ode to the old days, when bubbly songs like these poured effortlessly, it seems, out of tinny transistor radios (coot alert: a reference to long-outdated playback technology) — and, doubly cleverly, Mr. Mason, serves as an instruction manual for other would-be songwriters to specifically target the "never forget"" portion of the brain: under three minutes, words that get right to the point, a bridge with a chorus that doesn't come on too strong.

The tune comes from the just-released "Like Bugs Chewing on Paper," which brings the count of possible indictments, um, Mason releases to an even dozen — if you don't count the seven albums from the Lonesome Brothers, a side project that has taken on a life of its own. The disc may hold some surprises for people who have been following the Pioneer Valley-based singer-songwriter over his, yikes, 40-year career. Like the off-beat "The Beam," which comes off as a cross between an obscure, turn-of-the-(20th)-century field recording and a secretly recorded Captain Beefheart reading — and clocks in at 19 seconds, a record, so to speak, even for the master of brevity. Or other seeming incongruities, like "Tourist in Town," which is built on a serious funk riff, a la Stevie Wonder, or the bossa-nova-flavored “Go Ahead and Kiss Her." He admits to the genre-jumping, calling the collection an "eclectic" mix, which is, of course, the kiss of death. You can't have people bouncing here and there, musically. You've got to keep people — and, more importantly, radio programmers — focused.

But, no worries: "Like Bugs Chewing on Paper" is steeped in the thang that has helped Mason survive all these years: a complete understanding about what it takes to write a great, roughly polished pop tune: a strong sense of melody, an oddball — oh, let's say “quirky” — sense of humor and, of course, those choruses that the paralyze normal brain functions. It's also immediately clear that this guy can write a song about anything — like the rockabilly number "Ceiling," which finds him looking at the ceiling and the ceiling looking back, and comparing notes. Or the grungy, defiantly lo-fi "Unusual Keys," which muses about the joys and responsibilities that come with having a job that requires having three pounds of metal attached to your belt.

And while Mason has a lot to answer for on "Like Bugs," he certainly shouldn't take the fall on his own. The disc was produced, recorded and mixed at Cloud Cuckooland by Jim Weeks, who played drums, keyboards, bass, guitar and mandolin, and is pretty much responsible for everything on the album that isn't Mason, building it from the ground up, from basic acoustic and vocal tracks, in just four days.

Of course, in a sane world, you'd all ready know this. Mason wouldn't be a coot writing crazy, catchy tunes in the wilds of the Pioneer Valley. He'd be a household name. Or, more likely, he'd be on the lam, trying to keep one step ahead of dazed fans who, tired of having "Eloise, please" going through their heads, have taken things into their own hands. But locking him up, our original idea, still sounds like a strong option. It's all good, as the kids say today. So, take that, Eloise. Please.

Mason breaks out of western Mass exile for a June 27 show at Sally O'Brien's Bar and Grill, 337 Somerville Ave., Somerville. That's Union Square, folks. Music starts at 9:30 p.m. Check out the date at Check out Mason at