The first time that I heard the term “Catskill Rock” – dropped hopefully, as a putative scene that might be vibrant enough to blip on the national radar, in the same way that you might lobby the AMA to accept the reality of a disease that you made up so that you can patent its cure – was when the Saugerties-centered Paul Luke Band were bidding for national attention in the ’90s. The term, at that time, seemed designed to explain why we had a good ol’ mule-kicking, truck-driving rebel country rock band without a hint of lysergic vision quest or progressive politics up here in the land of the Band, Richie Havens, Orleans, Happy Traum, Paul Butterfield, Jack DeJohnette, Dave Holland, Robbie Dupree, Ed Sanders and Tom Pacheco. In other words, Luke’s claim was to and on behalf of the other Catskills: the Catskills of the indigenous, not the Catskills of the famed transplants who were more recognizable locally for their hushed-up drinking binges in the Woodstock clubs than for their exceedingly rare performances there.
This is why I have publicly argued – only semi-facetiously – that, while the Felice Brothers sound fiercely like Dylan and the Band much (but not all) of the time, their actual spirit fathers locally might have been the Paul Luke Band (a killer group that still gets out on occasion, by the way), simply by virtue of provenance. Their bones are Catskill rock. The preternaturally gifted tribe of Eppard comes to mind, too: locals gone national, in a land where the story has always been the nationals come local.
Things have changed and stayed the same. Our hills have flooded beyond measure with urban expat music professionals of some renown. But guitar rock and urban-sensibility hill folk do not mint icons or fortunes anymore. They’re the new jazz, in that respect: a mature form that is peaking aesthetically but withering commercially (and jazz is the new classical, priceless but on grant-patronage life support). So the scale is modest, and the talk a little more workaday than when arguments would rage all night about the exact spot of Dylan’s bike crash, or whether it even happened at all.
What drives the talent upriver these days? It’s the brutal tempo of fashion change in the City, which has orphaned a lot of artists long before they had run out of good things to say; the well-documented vanishing revenues of the industry, which makes paupers of those who would have been doing quite nicely, thank you, only 20 years ago; the undeniable charms and allure of our landscape, our villages and what is left of their idyllic communal myth; and (this most of all) babies. Adorable, swaddled babies are the driver, the bright stars of babies shining like new hope in these dark times: a different hope from stardom, a different dream. Musicians, especially those with prospects, are late breeders. But their audiences had already bailed for upstate. When the rabbit died, they knew where to go, too.
Levon is gone, and while the network of exceptional players he attracted lives on and thrives, the only Grammys landing locally these days are at the No Parking Studio in Rosendale. The fruitful intermingling of local and transplant talent is just a wonderful fact of our lives now. In many ways it’s a more viable and legitimate communal model than the shopworn myth of the ’60s, which was poisoned by more fame- and gender-hierarchy than its apologists like to admit. Unlike then, the “nationals” in this era of diminished expectations and per force grounded values are more likely to work and play (and CSA) locally – not just sleep and drink and buy properties here. All this means that, musically at least, this is the best time, by miles, in the history of the local scene. I dare you to disagree. I come armed with a lot of facts and CDs.
Meanwhile, while factions of the Woodstock guard rather quaintly mull over who might be “next” from their stable and their auspices, the mid-Hudson Valley has already produced a nationally blipping “next” in the form of such exuberant indie bands as PWR BTTM, Diet Cig and several others. Those kids really couldn’t tell you the difference between Woodstock and Bethel, or be persuaded that it matters. But they’ve mostly all moved to Brooklyn now, anyway. We’ll keep some cottages warm for them and their studios (and their babies if they be breeders, due date sometime around 2030).
Back in the land of what I am supposed to be writing about, Burnell Pines kicks off his fabulous new album Till the Day I Die with the song “The Catskills Stole My Heart.” If a 2:43 song has ever managed to feel more epic than this one, I am not aware of it. Over a choogling train groove and the darting, intricate filigree of guitars – slide and otherwise – and Marco Benevento’s piano and spooked, mantralike female backing vocals, the Woodstock-area native Jeremy Bernstein drops local references and road names while telling the oblique story of his own bewitchment by the Deus Loci, setting the stage for what may be the exemplary, proof-of-concept demonstration of Catskill rock, circa 2016. World, take note.
Cut after audacious cut, Till the Day I Die is PhD-level ruffian hill rock by a kid from these hills; but it is possessed of slick playing from all directions, boundlessly clever production, sonics and arrangement and an incredibly savvy sense of referentiality, deep fluency in the lexicon and subtraditions of classic rock. It’s not a winking, ironic referentiality, mind you; this is true-believer, the redemption-of-rock stuff.
The cast that Bernstein assembled is pretty much the current A-list of New York City scene -refugee performing and production talent. Guitarist and co-engineer Chris Maxwell made his name with the abrasive, angular art-rock band Skeleton Key, a band that didn’t have much use for the bedrock sounds of Neil Young or the Stones. Dan Littleton and Elizabeth Mitchell were in the whispery urban chamber-folk band Ida, a group far more likely to sound like Eric Satie than Gram Parsons. Kevin Salem played with Yo La Tengo, for Pete’s sake. Songwriter Rachel Yamagata cameos here, as do Mike + Ruthy and a number of other names that you might or should know.
Lest you or I assume naïvely that this is a simple case of the veteran pros making something slick and viable out of a hill kid with some good tunes, Jeremy Bernstein has been making exactly this kind of knowing, savvy and maximalist roots-rock records for years. While exceedingly well-played and -produced, Till I Day I Die is seamlessly of a piece with the virtuoso roots-rock records that Bernstein made with Stony Clove Lane (many members of which are in the house for this one too).
Bernstein’s mature aesthetic is an elusive paradox of raw and slick. The songs are sturdy, unfussy and unironic tales of falls and redemptions in a world both modern and evocatively retro. But the productions are vast, the layers and tracks virtually uncountable but pristinely coordinated. The specter of Exile on Main Street is everywhere. The record is also a reminder that everyone digs Neil Young.
Curiously, the majority of hired hands on Till the Day I Die seems to pitch in on the song “Days Gone By,” a soaring, delicate and strange folk ballad that stands out amidst the fuzzed-out and deep-pocket rockers that prevail on this exceptional record. It reminds me that, while “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and “Up on Cripple Creek” might have been the big hits, “Whispering Pines” is the Band song that we all really revere around here, in the land of its making.
Till the Day I Die is due out on Royal Potato Family Records on February 19. Burnell Pines celebrates the release with a show at the Old Glenford Church Studio on Saturday, February 20 at 8 p.m. Diggy Lessard opens. Admission is $10 in advance and $12 on the day of the show. The Old Glenford Church Studio is located at 210 Old Route 28 in Glenford. For more information, visit www.burnellpines.com.
Burnell Pines’ Till the Day I Die CD release show with Diggy Lessard, Saturday, February 20, 8 p.m., $10/$12, Old Glenford Church Studio, 210 Old Route 28, Glenford; www.burnellpines.com.