now playing: michael tolcher, “sun song”
so my buddy blake allen sends me his rough draft that he’s been promising to send me for his bio, finally…after stonewalling me for ages, right?
so i sit down and hammer it out in half an hour or so, and i call him to get corrections and an opinion and he can’t be bothered to answer his cellphone.
so i have this brilliant idea…i know he stops by here every now and then, so why not just post his bio (as it’s currently written, obviously) on the journal? at least this way i know he’ll get it, and all he’ll have to do is cut and paste it, right?
so in between congratulating myself for my brainstorm and leaving multiple voicemails in several different dialects on his cellphone voicemail, i submit the following for your (and his) approval:
“From here on out, I’m only interested in stuff that’s real,” states fictitious Stillwater guitarist Russell Hammond to his road companion (fledgling rock writer William Miller) in the Cameron Crowe movie Almost Famous. Hammond is in the process of walking out on his bandmates after a heated discussion about T-Shirts, of all things…and is fed up with the business. “Real, real….real,” he repeats, as if it’s in the process of becoming his personal mantra.
Russell Hammond would have been a big fan of Blake Allen’s music.
Blake’s music is at once fresh and immediate, and yet manages to conjure images of the days when Russell Hammond and his like roamed the earth – Blake’s warm, honest voice weaves stories over melodies created with tools both new and tried and trusted. Acoustic instruments and drum loops share space within a song as if nothing could be more natural, and every note played is there for a reason. His songs become old friends instantaneously.
Blake Allen was born in Seattle, Washington and grew up across the border in Saskatchewan, Canada – a neighbor of Joni Mitchell’s family. Blake and his siblings learned the ways of the road early on – the result of being born into a professional sports family. “My Dad, Keith, is a member of the NHL Hall of Fame for building the Phildelphia Flyers’ “Broad Street Bullies” team that won the Stanley Cup in 1974 and 1975…so I started skating when I was two and played hockey up through high school,” he says, “until I discovered the guitar, beer, and my future wife.” Blake’s early interest in the family sport was borne less of passion and more of opportunity, and as he settled into his teenage years, he would find that he drew more inspiration from his musical heroes than the sports legends he encountered on a routine basis growing up.
After forming a romantic and musical bond with his wife, Mollie, Blake began doing impromptu shows at local bars with Mollie and her sister, Kerry, as the McShanes. Originally an acoustic trio, they evolved into a full-fledged family band with the addition of younger McShane brothers Michael on guitar and Brian on bass. “They were too young to get into bars, so we needed to get permission from the bar owners for them to play. They missed a lot of Fridays in high school.”
Once their skills had been honed as a unit, elder brother Danny took over management duties for the band and they recruited a drummer for their leap from the coverband doldrums into original music. Re-christening themselves Aunt Pat, they played their first show of original music with their new moniker at The Bitter End in New York City “with a drummer we auditioned the day before,” remembers Allen. “Danny believed in throwing us in the pool to see if we’d sink or swim..or tread water.” Of Danny’s management tactics, one local music industry vet confided to Blake that “the best thing that ever happened to your band is that Danny never learned to play an instrument.” The first gig must have provided the necessary encouragement, for they found themselves settling into the original music circuit in Philadelphia with relative ease. Remembers fellow musician Tom Hampton: “The first time I ever saw them was as a trio, and they absolutely blew me away. It was at a time when popular music in general was making something of a return to honest songwriting…Counting Crows had just come along, The Wallflowers, Jeff Buckley – and we had the greatest AAA radio station on the planet right in our backyard back then. I thought they were gonna be absolutely huge.” Indeed, WXPN played several tracks from their self-titled, homemade debut album, and before long they found themselves sharing bills with some of the darlings of the format: Dar Williams, The Nields, Erin McKeown, Vigilantes of Love, John Sebastian, and others.
The reception of their debut album was encouraging enough to head back into the studio and record a follow up, titled Patoo, in 1998. Working in Woodstock, N.Y., they managed to lure legendary Band alumnus Levon Helm into the project, singing and playing mandolin on the song Hard Inside. “I got to play both of Levon’s mandolins, the Martin that he played at Woodstock and the Gibson that he played with Emmylou Harris on The Last Waltz,” Blake gushes. Helm was very supportive, telling them at the end of the day in his trademark drawl, “You got yourselves a band here.”
Patoo captured Aunt Pat at its absolute creative peak, firing on all eight cylinders. It’s an album that leaps out of your speakers and whispers quietly into your ear at the same time. From the opening cascades of 13th Sign through the album’s closer, South of Home, the album never stop asserting its greatness for a minute. The record recieved widespread airplay on AAA stations across the country, and propelled the band onto the I-95 corridor to promote it. The song Georgia made it to #2 on Garageband.com’s Worldwide Talent Search in April of 2000, and Performing Songwriter magazine named it one of their top independent DIY albums of 2000. “I remember lying in bed listening to the radio in Georgia, and hearing the song come on the radio,” Allen recalls, “and there’s no feeling like that…hearing a song you wrote come on the radio and knowing other people are hearing it at the same time you are.”
The strains of working, living, and sharing every waking moment with one another eventually began to take their toll on the band, and by the time 2002’s Swim was completed, guitarist Michael McShane had already departed the band. When sister Kerry announced to the band that she was expecting a child, the wood began to splinter – soon afterward, bassist Brian announced that he was moving to San Francisco to pursue studio work. “By that time, I was showing up to gigs billed as ‘Aunt Pat’ and I was the only one on stage,” Blake says, “So a solo career was born out of both necessity and circumstance.”
Before throwing the towel in completely, Blake called longtime friend Tom Hampton to flesh out the Aunt Pat skeleton crew for the remaining shows – “a call I’d waited for for five years,” he confided. Aunt Pat finished as it started – as a trio – comprised of Blake, Mollie, and Tom.
During rehearsals, Tom noted the presence of a large dry erase board in Blake and Mollie’s basement that charted progress on dozens of songs with titles he didn’t recognize. “What are these?” he’d ask – to be told they were all songs that Blake had written and began recording in various stages in his erstwhile basement studio. Tapes started floating back and forth between the two, to be followed by tracks being added and swapped. “Blake is singularly responsible for the fact that I have a studio in my house,” Hampton confides. “It started with him loaning me an ADAT and a couple of mics to work on tracks, and then I’d go buy stuff, and he’d bring over more stuff, and I’d go buy more stuff…and the next thing I knew, I was awash in all this recording gear – it enabled us both to do our best work on this project, I think.”
Blake adds, “I’ve been writing songs for over twenty years, but there’s only so much room on a band record for each writer. Most people in my situation will tell you that the best thing about making a solo record after coming from a band perspective is that there’s no one else to tell you what to do. Some of those people will also tell you that the worst thing about making a solo record is that there’s no one else to tell you what to do. I wanted my record to feature traditional instrumentation like dobro, mandolin, banjo, lap steel..so Tom was my first phone call when I needed a sympathetic musician from the same ring of the tree. Songs like Little Leaping Frogs of Rain and Into Night took on new life when Tom got his hands on them.”
The result of this collaboration is Ghosting – Blake Allen’s debut solo record featuring ten songs that echo his musical and literary influences. It combines musical elements that reflect the admiration of artists like Gordon Lightfoot, Neil Young, The Beatles, Springsteen, and Counting Crows with traces of Norman Mailer, Larry McMurtry, John Stienbeck, and Jack London.
Accustomed to the creative process being a family affair, Allen features the familiar Aunt Pat alumnus on the record, as well as his personal highlight – having daughters Shay (on electric guitar) and Chelsea (on piano) appear on the song Who Knows What Heaven Is. Former Aunt Pat vocalist and sister-in-law Kerry Kay’s daughter Jamie sings the multi-layered harmony bridge on the same track, recalling a similar moment from David Crosby’s Laughing. Other cameos include Barry Meehan, Fred Berman (currently on the road with Amos Lee), Don Zebrauskus, and Aunt Pat drummer Chuck Treece. The record was mixed and seasoned at Marc Moss’ Target Studios, with Moss contributing to the tracks as well.
Ghosting will certainly sound familiar to fans of Aunt Pat – Allen was certainly their most prolific songwriter, but always content to allow the ladies to inhabit the front of the stage. The songs on this record are gentle reminders of what Aunt Pat could have been, and reveal the promise of Blake’s career as a self-contained unit. It’s a record that begs multiple listens, and introduces new twists and turns upon each repeated airing. It’s a snapshot of Blake Allen’s journey from the frozen lakes of Canada and his youth to where he stands today – indeed, to where we all stand today.
Ghosting will be available through BlakeAllen.com and several retail outlets – for information about where to get the record, and for upcoming performances and other information, visit http://www.BlakeAllen.com.
so there you have it. now, while you’re thinking of it, send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell him what a genius he is, and that you can’t wait to buy his record.
now, i don’t know whether it was blake’s intention to reveal my identity as the author of his bio, but i guess the damage is done now (moral of the story: answer your phone, bitch)…but just let me say this in closing.
i don’t needlessly flatter anyone. under any circumstances. if someone, for instance, were to come to me in a fragile state because someone had just told them that their short story sucked, i wouldn’t tell them it didn’t if it did. now, i wouldn’t say, “well, duh” or anything that insensitive…i’d say something more along the lines of “well, that’s their opinion, and if you really believed it was good, then don’t let them discourage you” or something similary non-positional and vague. i won’t accost you with my opinion – for instance, if you smell really bad, i wouldn’t come up to you to be the first to tell you that you stink, but if you ask me how you smell, i’m not gonna lie to you.
it’s in that spirit that i hope you’ll consider what i’ve written about my friend. i loved aunt pat from the moment i first heard the three of them on that dank little stage at the old grape street, and i still love blake’s music to this day.
but then, if you’re a regular visitor, you know that i don’t blow smoke where music is concerned anyway.