Cameron Williams finds his groove with Jes’ Grew
ASPEN – Aspen seems to have a way of telling Cameron Williams that he belongs here.In the mid-’90s, on his first visit here, Williams walked into the Acme Bar and was stunned to hear the band playing “Movin’ On” – a song Williams had written as a high school senior back in Tallahassee, Fla. Turns out the band featured members of Otis Roach, a group Williams had co-founded a few years earlier, during his brief stint at Western State College in Gunnison.”I said, ‘That’s kind of cool,'” he recalled. “Coincidences like that happen, they make you think. And that one’s crazy.”What it made Williams think about was moving to Aspen. The incident was not the main reason for his relocation, but it sure helped make him feel at home here. And what happened on the first night he moved to the Roaring Fork Valley, early in 1998, compounded the feeling that he had landed in the right place.The friend whom Williams was set to share a place with in Woody Creek was out of town. So he arranged for Williams, instead of spending a lonely night on the outskirts, to head into Aspen and meet up with a group of women. When Williams arrived, there was a banner welcoming him to town, and an invitation to go to the Double Diamond, to see the Derek Trucks Band.”I said, ‘Derek’s in town? Come on!'” Williams was once again in disbelief: Trucks – a teenager at the time, not yet a member of the Allman Brothers Band or recognized as a guitar great – was, like Williams, a Floridian, and the two were acquainted. Williams called the club, got Trucks’ bassist on the phone, and scored an invitation to sit in with the band.”My musical introduction to Aspen was sitting in with the Derek Trucks Band,” Williams said. “Which is a nice way to be welcomed to town.”Past glories are nice, especially the kind that make you think the world is aligned in your favor. But Williams doesn’t have to look back more than a decade to see that Aspen appreciates what he has to offer. Jes’ Grew, the Aspen band he co-founded at the end of the ’90s, remains in business, and is having an especially good run of late. The group – with bassist Stephen Vidamour, drummer Paul Valentine, saxophonist Chris Harrison, and Randolph Turner joining Williams on vocals and guitar – has sold out its last several shows at Belly Up, and returns to the club on Saturday, Jan. 14. Opening is singer-songwriter Sonia Leigh, whose debut album, “1978 December,” was released on Southern Ground, a label started by country star Zac Brown.”It’s a fun party. Everyone knows they’re going to see friends there, hear songs they know,” Williams said of Jes’ Grew’s appearances at Belly Up. He then points out that such shows are perfectly in line with the band’s name: Jes’ Grew comes from the 1972 novel “Mumbo Jumbo” by Ismael Reed; the term refers to a virus that makes people sing and dance.••••Williams’ view of the music world, though, doesn’t begin and end with Aspen. He has toured the country and through Europe, played the Bonnaroo Festival, worked with top producers, shared bills with B.B. King and Emmylou Harris, and sung the National Anthem at an Atlanta Braves game. And while Williams, at 37, hasn’t ruled out another chase at his rock ‘n roll dreams – “I’m not opposed to it,” he said – the last few years have been filled more with evenings tending bar at Takah Sushi and nights playing relatively low-pressure gigs around Aspen, not recording albums and storming the country, one motel room at a time.Music infected Williams early. In first grade, he was playing piano and singing in a church choir in Tallahassee, and recognizing “a natural pull toward music.” He even has fond memories of his couple of years, beginning in fourth grade, as a member of Duke’s Ukes – Ms. Duke’s collection of young ukulele players, who would sit in a circle and play “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” and other country tunes by Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton. When Williams gets a young student these days, he starts them on ukulele, which is easier on the fingers, and provides a good foundation for guitar.But the ukulele is only going to hold a kid for so long, and it’s indicative that Williams’ favorite song in the Duke’s Ukes repertoire was Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.” By sixth grade Williams had graduated to the garage-band phase, and with his neighbor Richard Proctor formed Phoenix, which specialized in covers of Led Zeppelin, Mtley Cre and Black Sabbath.”It was the height of the hair-band stuff. I was all into that. Loved it,” Williams said (adding that his mother most certainly did not love the cover that Phoenix performed at a fashion show – J.J. Cale’s “Cocaine” – but was OK with naming the family dog Randy, after Black Sabbath guitarist Randy Rhoads). “That was the hot-rod stuff of the time. If you could play that stuff, you were cool.”The summer after high school, Williams had his first taste of where music could bring him. He worked days at a law firm, but made an even more regular practice of showing up each night at a warehouse, to rehearse with his new group, the Black Creek Band. (Among his bandmates was Ryan Newell, guitarist for the rock band Sister Hazel, which plays Belly Up on Tuesday, Jan. 17.) Williams went off for his year at Western State, but after Black Creek reconvened for a summer in Athens, Ga., the members all decided to move to Tallahassee and give the band their full attention. “We were playing every weekend, making good money, writing songs. Something was happening,” Williams said.Black Creek Band recorded an album, “Live From Gainseville,” but the road ended there. “We had the ugly break-up drama,” Williams said. “We were too young. Decisions were made and not talked about correctly. Some guys wanted to get rid of the drummer. Typical band stuff.”Williams returned to school – Florida State this time, in his native Tallahassee – intent on becoming an English professor. The owner of Potbelly’s, your standard college bar, offered him a solo gig on Tuesday nights, but Williams was hesitant. “I had a bad taste in my mouth for the whole music business. I told the owner I was on a different track now,” he said. But Williams got an attractive offer, gave it a try, and eventually brightened his view of the music business. “There was a line out the door, the owner offered me part of the door. The money I was making was insane.”At FSU, Williams reconnected with Proctor to form Uptown Rudy. That band cemented the idea that music could be pure enjoyment. “The whole point was just to be fun. We weren’t going to tour or record. It was very laid-back, a good-time band,” Williams said. But Uptown Rudy had come up with some solid songs that they wanted to memorialize, so they made a live recording with a local producer, John Kurzweg. At the time, Kurzweg was pushing another band with FSU connections, the hard-rock group Creed.••••In December 1997, Williams came to Aspen for a vacation that got longer and longer. In January 1998, he became a full-on ski bum, with a job at Up 4 Pizza and acoustic gigs around town. Monkey Train, an Aspen band with an impressive track record, was splitting up at the time, and Williams hooked up with the group’s guitarist, Randolph Turner, and keyboardist, Rob Dasaro, to form His Boy Elroy. The trio expanded into a rock band, Jes’ Grew; Williams also formed a jazz trio and took on a bunch of guitar students.By 2000, Williams was itching for something bigger. “I realized I needed to play music,” he said. Out of the blue a band from Atlanta, Ira Towns, called, saying they needed a lead guitarist. It happened to be the last day of ski season, so Williams headed back to the Southeast. For three maddening weeks, Williams found himself stranded in Atlanta, trying to find the band. They were on the road – with their new guitarist.Williams came to see that the Ira Towns gig wouldn’t have been a good fit. “The guy they hired – I saw what they wanted: a guy they could just tell what to do,” he said. Still, the experience was “a kick in the teeth. I’m close to family in Atlanta, but what am I doing? In Aspen, every time we played it was crowded and fun. And here I had no band, I don’t know anyone. I’m signing up for open-mike nights. It made me work and think about things.”Once again, it was Proctor who helped make things right in Williams’ musical world. Proctor was at a seminary in Atlanta, but was game for playing music on the side. They found a guitarist, Jess Franklin, in Tallahassee; Franklin had a bassist, Steven Spivey. The foursome, under the name Tishamingo, split time between Atlanta and Tallahassee, but had their eye on a farmhouse in Athens, Ga. Before moving, though, Franklin begged for another month in Florida: He worked at a mattress store, and September – the busy students-returning-to-campus season – was coming up. So they set up in the shop, and created an interesting scene of students, beer, brand-new mattresses and a rising young band. During the time, Tishamingo learned an album a week, focusing on debut albums: “Led Zeppelin I,” “The Allman Brothers Band,” “Black Sabbath,” Derek & the Dominos’ “Layla & Other Love Songs.”In Athens, Tishamingo got busy honing its take on Southern boogie-rock. “All we did was play music. We’d just stay and rehearse in the farmhouse and take any gig we could get,” Williams said. The work paid off when John Keane, who had worked with REM and Widespread Panic, agreed to produce their first album. “That was the kind of guy we’d moved to Athens for. For him to hear our shitty demos and say, ‘Yeah, I want to work with you guys’ – that was cool.”Tishamingo made two more albums – one with Dave Barbe, who has worked extensively with the Drive-By Truckers; the other with John Kurzweg, who did in fact go on to acclaim as Creed’s producer – did cross-country tours and played major festivals. For Williams, it was close enough to the big time.”It’s an experience that’s so unique. You can’t get that with much else,” he said. “Music took me to places I never would have gone.”The dissolution of Tishamingo was also satisfactory. Proctor gave the band a year’s notice that he wanted to return to the seminary, and they started scaling back. Williams, missing Aspen, returned here in 2008 and rejoined Jes’ Grew. It’s a different kind of existence, with dreams on a different scale. Tishamingo did big tours; Jes’ Grew played a few shows in the South. Tishamingo made three albums; Jes’ Grew recorded three tunes when they were in Atlanta.Does Williams miss what he had? Yes and no.”I definitely knew I wanted to be off the road for a little bit,” he said of his decision to return to Aspen. “The road is fun but any musician will tell you, it’s a haul. It will wear on you. I didn’t want to jump back into it right away. Being in a career like that, in music, there’s always ups and downs. You put more stress on things than you should because it’s so important to you.”Williams’ current life avoids that kind of stress. “Jes’ Grew is no drama,” said Williams, who plays duet gigs at Takah Sushi and spends offseasons in the South to sit in with old friends. “It’s not our livelihood. With Tishamingo, that was the number one thing. Jes’ Grew is just fun. Every time we play together it’s just a pleasure, and I think the crowd senses that.”But every time I play Belly Up I think, ‘Whoa – if it could be like this every night on the road, I’d be out there in an instant. I certainly still have the fire and still have the bug.”firstname.lastname@example.org
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