Playing at Belly Up Aspen on Wednesday, it’s all relative for Brothers Keeper
The Aspen Times
Wednesday night at 9
John Oates has taken the Roaring Fork Valley-based rhythm section of bassist Michael Jude and drummer John Michel around the globe. Jude and Michel count 14 countries, from Scandinavia to Japan, they have visited in the past year alone, playing with Oates. “We’ve been around the world with him several times, from the Blue Note in Japan to casinos in Iowa,” Jude said of Oates, who is half of the soul duo Hall & Oates and a Woody Creek resident.
Brothers Keeper, another of Jude and Michel’s projects, hasn’t taken them nearly as far. Most of the group’s gigs are in Vail, in a spot called the Shakedown Bar, and Wednesday night, Jude and Michel appear with the band at Belly Up Aspen, a short ride from their midvalley homes. It should be noted that Brothers Keeper has traveled some — to New Jersey, Santa Fe, N.M., and Durango.
Which is not to say that Brothers Keeper is a second-tier concern for the duo. Wednesday night’s show, like roughly half of the band’s dates, features John Popper, the singer, harmonica players and leader of Blues Traveler. Brothers Keeper also features full-time singer-songwriter Jono Manson, a central figure of the thriving downtown Manhattan rock scene of the ‘90s that included Blues Traveler, Joan Osborne and the Spin Doctors. The band has been joined on occasion by guitarist Jeff Pevar, a member of David Crosby’s CPR, and Richie Cannata, the longtime saxophonist in Billy Joel’s band.
In May, Brothers Keeper spent 12 days at Manson’s studio in Santa Fe to begin work on an album; in June and July, they recorded the album at Ardent Studios, in Memphis, Tenn., where the White Stripes, Bob Dylan and Led Zeppelin have worked.
In their 16 years of playing together, Jude and Michel have often been the beneficiaries of somewhat low expectations. They tend to get hired as a rhythm section, to keep the beat behind a singer. But both are singers — talented enough to have contributed backing vocals on Oates’ solo albums — and songwriters. Frequently, the two perform as a duo, both of them on guitar and vocals. With the Brothers Keeper album, still untitled and probably a few months from release, they once again surprised their fellow musicians.
“They thought they were going to have to carry us with the songwriting, everything,” Michel said. “And we came out like gangbusters. At the end of the record, everyone went, ‘Hey, we’re not even tired.’ It was because we all chipped in equally.”
Michel took the partnership with Jude seriously from the outset. In the mid-‘90s Jude was part of a New York band, Little Blue, that needed a drummer. Jude went to see Michel, a New York City native, as part of the house band at the storied Greenwich Village club the Bitter End. Jude and his bandmate, Steve Postell, were impressed enough to invite Michel to play a few nights later in Worcester, Mass., Jude’s hometown, and gave the drummer a copy of Little Blue’s album.
“He learned the whole thing, down pat, on his drive,” Jude said. “He showed up and said, ‘OK, but we have to play the album in sequence, because that’s how he learned it.”
“I was writing out the charts on index cards while driving,” Michel said.
Little Blue was already spending most of its time in Aspen, and in the winter of 1997, Michel relocated to Colorado. The band became a prominent presence in Aspen, and when Little Blue ended its run, Jude and Michel carried on in the valley, forming the group Take the Wheel, and earning a reputation as a top rhythm section. The existence of such local talent was part of the reason John Oates launched a career outside of Hall & Oates. One night, when a member of Jude and Michel’s band failed to show for a gig, the two took out their guitars and performed as a duo; they continue to do the duo appearances regularly.
“That’s the strangest thing we do,” Michel, who has been a professional musician since his teens, said of the duo. “Every time I’m playing in that, it’s ‘How did we get to doing this?’ I’d always wanted to be the session drummer. Guitar and writing came later and happened by accident — sometimes the songwriter couldn’t play the guitar part, so I’d play it.”
This year, the two released “Acoustic Jems,” which spotlights their singing, songwriting and acoustic guitar playing.
When singer-guitarist Scott Rednor moved to Vail two years ago, he was looking for just such a rhythm section, and was abandoning hope of finding one. Someone mentioned Jude and Michel, and Rednor went to see them at a gig in Eagle. He showed up expecting to see a rhythm section, but the two were doing the guitar duo. Rednor invited them for a try-out jam, and Jude and Michel showed up with low expectations of their own.
“I said, If this guy stinks, we’ll play ‘Cripple Creek’ and get out of there,” Jude said. “We did a verse and a half and it clicked. We said, OK, we have a band here. It snowballed like crazy.”
The ball got rolling with a slate of winter gigs in Vail. Last winter, Rednor mentioned that Popper, an old friend from New York in the ‘90s, might want to come to Colorado for a few gigs. Popper came, and brought Manson with him. After their first set as the expanded version of Brothers Keeper, Popper, who is known to pursue most any musical endeavor, suggested making a record. While recording in Memphis, the group stayed in an 1853 plantation house across the Mississippi River in Arkansas, which gave an added dimension to the band’s organic, bluesy take on roots music.
“There was a cool, eerie feeling there,” Jude said. “An 11-mile lake, a big house, and nothing around it. Kind of going back in time.”
Wednesday night’s gig, along with a pair of gigs this past week, marks something of a high mark for Brothers Keeper. The band appears Wednesday night as a seven-piece, with keyboardist Bill McKay and guitarist Rob Eaton Jr. joining Popper and Manson, and the steady trio of Jude, Michel and Rednor. The band will play songs from the album, along with tunes from Blues Traveler, and from the Duskray Troubadours, a band led by Popper and Manson. At the heart of the beat will be two musicians who have not only learned to keep time, but have become locked in together over 16 years of writing songs, singing and traveling.
“It’s like breathing,” Jude said of his partnership with Michel. “I can hear if he’s going to a place; he can hear if I’m doing a thing. When we play with someone new, they always go, ‘Whoa, why do you guys sound like you’ve played together forever?’ Well, we have. And we’re still friends. That’s the funny part about the whole thing.”
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