The Crooners leave busking behind for Belly Up
December 15, 2006
The Crooners have done a good bit of moving around in their five-year existence, giving truth to the title of their new CD, “So Many Places.” The Crooners – Kevin Denton, Nyles R. Fitzgerald and Chris Merkley – met when in upstate New York in the late ’90s, when all three were students at Cornell by day and playing in various bands at night. Two-thirds of the band has ventured to New York City to make their homes. (Merkley is still an upstater, living in Binghamton.) They haven’t exactly been road warriors in the States – there was, however, their guerrilla invasion of Austin’s South by Southwest this past March – but they have traveled extensively in Europe. Their current tour of Colorado brings the trio to Belly Up for their Aspen debut, Monday, Dec. 18.Easily the most significant of the places the Crooners have seen is Paris, and more specifically, the street corners of the City of Lights. It was there – not the frats and bars of Ithaca, or the network of clubs from Burlington to Boulder – that the band learned its craft and launched its career.In 2000, Fitzgerald went to study in Paris. He had a very specific subject in mind: his great-uncle Danny Fitzgerald, a legendary figure on the sidewalks of Paris.”Danny Fitzgerald is the Yoda of buskers, in his 60s,” said Denton, from his home in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. “He wears a girdle, has a huge belly, plays washtub bass.”Nyles Fitzgerald’s course of study was film, and while in Paris, when not joining his uncle in song on the corner, he made a documentary, “A Busker’s World.” When he came back to the States and showed it to his friends and fellow musicians Denton and Merkley, the three decided to form a band – in Paris, on the streets.
“He came back with the film and said, ‘We’ll blow the doors off these guys,'” said the 27-year-old Denton, who sings and plays guitars, piano and electric bass on “So Many Places.” “They play a lot of American music on the streets there. But we could spike it up a bit. They didn’t play American music with the gusto we did. There were too many accordions there.”Denton displays confidence now, but in the spring of 2001, as they were about to set sail for Paris, the Crooners were not so sure about their musical aims. The music they had settled on – blues and jazz rooted in the 1920s and ’30s, heavy on the songs of Robert Johnson and Fats Waller – was the preferred flavor for French buskers. But it was a new style for them, and the street was a new sort of stage. So the band – which then included vocalist Jen Growler – did a minitour of Ithaca porches, bridges and corners, mostly for friends. Satisfied that they could play the music and master the art of busking, they bought resonator guitars – an acoustic instrument with an unusually high capacity for volume – and left for Paris. As Hambone Jenny & the Crooners, they took to the streets, armed with a repertoire of 12 songs.”It was stuff we liked,” said Denton of the old-school music, “and it was stuff we knew would work. Paris is still in this swing revival from a few years ago. And it worked. “I went over there with $100, naively thinking we could make it. We had no idea what we were doing. Nyles and Jen had been there, but we were completely clueless. It was rainy; we had no place to stay. But the first pitch – that’s street lingo for a set – we played was like magic. It went over really well.”The education was as much in the art of street performance as it was in music. The Crooners had to study crowd patterns in different neighborhoods, where they wouldn’t get hassled by police, and the buskers’ code of ethics. Probably above all, they had to learn the techniques that make for successful busking, which can be far different than those that work in a more proper venue.”In the end, busking is very democratic – you’re giving away something to everyone, if they buy a CD or if they just pass by with a smile,” said Denton. “Having such limited time to impress an audience – 20 seconds – you really learn how to engage an audience and hold them. If you can blow their mind and make them stay, that’s amazing.”
Busking has remained a passion. They have made annual trips back to France. (The 2004 voyage was made without Denton, who went to graduate school at Cornell in urban planning and even worked as a planner before deciding he preferred singing for his dinner.) This past summer, the Crooners busked their way from Paris to Prague, and stopped at numerous points in between, including the Monteux Jazz Festival in Switzerland – where they performed onstage.”We busk all day and book clubs at night,” said Denton. “It’s the way to see the cities, meet the people. And we sell a lot of CDs, at 10 euros a pop; that’s what funds the trip.”The band also busks in the States, mostly in Manhattan’s Union Square. Just last week, the Crooners passed a busker’s rite of initiation, when they received their first ticket, for using amplified instruments. They have also busked on the streets of Boulder, Breckenridge and New Orleans.The band has also broken away from the streets a bit. On “So Many Places,” their third CD, there is no indication of the Crooners’ roots in busking. They use piano, an instrument that doesn’t figure in their street-corner serenades. And while there are still strong hints of early blues and jazz, there is a lot more in the mix. “New Kind of Blue” is the kind of stomping electric blues in the school of R.L. Burnside or the North Mississippi Allstars. Denton says the band has moved some of its focus forward a few decades, from the ’20s and ’30s to the early rock of the ’50s and the British invasion sounds of the ’60s. “Leave It Up to Me” sounds like a Simon & Garfunkel demo; the harmonies on “On My Way” are reminiscent of the Byrds or the Dave Clark Five.”We’ve been more adventurous,” said Denton. “We’re reverential of those early sounds. Much like the Beatles and Stones started out with skiffle and early blues, I feel we’re such devotees of the music we started with. But with the new record we’re also dabbling with later-period stuff. It swings a little different.”Still, the Crooners will be swinging in the same place they started, keeping their guitar cases open for spare change, or just passing smiles. “I think that’ll always be the core of it,” said Denton.
“Home for Christmas,” the first holiday recording from Daryl Hall and local resident John Oates, starts on a hushed vibe. The CD opens with a gentle orchestral overture, and moves into a contemplative take on “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” Consistent with the title, it suggests a holiday spent at home, in quiet reflection of what Christmas is about. With Oates’ “No Child Should Ever Cry on Christmas,” however, the CD kicks into a higher-gear version of Hall & Oates’ style of blue-eyed soul, a feel that carries through the Hall-penned title track and a take on Robbie Robertson’s “Christmas Must Be Tonight.”Then things really accelerate, with a rowdy version of the spiritual “Children Go Where I Send Thee.” Complete with a choir, the song takes the CD out of the home and into a Southern Pentecostal church. The feel carries through a bluesy reading of “Mary Had a Baby.” “Jingle Bell Rock” gets an old-school rock feel, and the CD glides to a soft landing with “Oh Holy Night.” (Somewhere in there Hall & Oates squeezed in the obligatory cover of “The Christmas Song.” An astonishing 11 of the 16 Christmas CDs I reviewed this year have it.)It may be titled “Home for Christmas.” But the CD may send listeners running to a church, in search of the sound of that Holy Ghost spirit.
Dave Mason – a member of Traffic in the ’60s and early ’70s, the maker of solo hits “Only You Know and I Know” and “We Just Disagree” later in the ’70s, and the writer of the Joe Cocker hit “Feelin’ Alright” – has had made some more recent contributions to rock. He was a short-term member of Fleetwood Mac, playing on 1995’s “Time.” And in 1999, Mason put on a worthy show at the Wheeler Opera House.He returns to Aspen for a free show Dec. 28 at the base of Aspen Mountain, in the Aspen Skico’s Hi-Fi concert series.Other shows recently added to the local calendar, all at Belly Up: reggae singer Sister Carol (Wednesday, Dec. 20); the return of rappers Method Man and Redman (Saturday, Dec. 23); bluegrassers the Avett Brothers (Feb. 7); singer-songwriter Martin Sexton (Feb. 9); Widespread Panic sound-alikes Tea Leaf Green (Feb. 11); and the North Mississippi Allstars (March 5-6).Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.