Col. Bruce Hampton & The Aquarium Rescue Unit
August 8, 2011
Col. Bruce Hampton & The Aquarium Rescue Unit
August 8, 2011
Words by Brian Heisler
When most music fans hear the name "Ramone," they think of shaggy-haired, Queens, NY boys. They think of "Blitzkrieg Bop," or "I Wanna Be Sedated." They think of punk rock, and CBGB's, and a band that revolutionized music in the 1970's.
The last thing that someone thinks about when they hear the name "Ramone" is bluegrass.
Tommy Erdelyi, nee Tommy Ramone, was one of the founding members of the seminal band, playing drums from 1974 to 1978. Now, three decades later, he has a new project, a bluegrass duo named Uncle Monk, who recently released their debut self-titled album.
Honest Tune contributing writer Brian Heisler caught up with Tommy to talk about his new gig, how it came to be, and how Ramones fans react when they see Ramone with a mandolin instead of a drum kit.
Honest Tune: Your new bluegrass duo, Uncle Monk, where does the name come from?
Tommy Ramone: It’s a name that we’ve had for a long time. I just like the sound of it, sort of like an alliteration type thing. I thought it sounded neat. Maybe it’s a homage to Thelonius Monk and the painter Edward Monk.
HT: In that case, how long have you been playing in some capacity under the name “Uncle Monk”?
TR: We used to have a band, sort of like an electric jamband, called Uncle Monk, in the early ‘90s. And Claudia Tienan played bass and I was guitar and singer. So we’ve had the name for a while.
HT: Originally it was a jamband and traditionally you’ve played in rock groups, so where did the bluegrass sound come from?
TR: Well, at that time I wanted to start bringing in elements of old time music and bluegrass into that band. And in doing that I started picking up the banjo and the mandolin and I just found out that I really loved those instruments and slowly we started dropping the electric ones.
Eventually we ended up an acoustic duo, so it sort of like an evolution of sorts.
HT: How exactly did you come together with Claudia Tienan?
TR: We met on the New York music scene and we were both going to Hunter College, so we bumped into each other all the time.
HT: You said you played as a jamband under Uncle Monk, so it has not always been just the two of you. Do you plan to bring a band on board when you hit the road at some point?
TR: That band was a trio – we had a drummer. Eventually we might add musicians; right now we like the duo situation because it’s very portable and we sort of are coming up with a unique sound, doing it as a duo. We’re having fun the way it is right now.
But in the future we might add musicians down the line. Who knows?
HT: On your album you play mandolin, banjo, and dobro and you sing, but of course there are no drums. As an accomplished drummer with the likes of the Ramones, why are there no drums on the album?
TR: Originally there were supposed to be drums and this present thing evolved. At first we were putting down drums, but things just sounded better without the drums. It just became more authentic and as it became more authentic, it became better.
The mandolin itself provides sort of like a rhythm. Part of the mandolin’s function is what is known as the “mandolin chop,” which is a little bit like a snare drum actually. You may not hear a drum, but the rhythms are in there.
HT: When you play in front of fans who have never seen you before but know that they are coming to see Tommy Ramone, what is the reaction you get from longtime Ramones fans?
TR: It’s very interesting because most of those people have absolutely never heard bluegrass or old time music. It’s all very alien to them. They like it, but a lot of times they don’t know why they like it.
But the response has been very positive, especially as we’ve been doing it more and more. They really get into it, so it’s been very good actually.
HT: Do you get fans coming to expect Ramones music, even though they should be expecting bluegrass?
TR: I don’t know what they expect. I suppose a lot of people expect all kinds of things from us because there’s all kinds of old time bands out there that actually are kind of punky, almost like a jug band type of thing, there’re a lot of those bands out there. So possibly some people might expect us to be like that, but we’re really not like that.
We’re really much more like an indie band, where we combine indie sensibilities, modern lyrics with old time instrumentation and structure. What we’re doing is kind of original and unique. It’s not particularly punky in the sense that people would think it is punky, but in another sense it is because lyrically we deal with certain themes that some people might consider very punky indeed.
We’re very different than what people might expect, but in an interesting way they seem to get off on it because it’s like breaking new ground, it opens new doors for them.
HT: What plans do you have for Uncle Monk for the rest of the summer?
TR: We’re gonna add shows one at a time and try to enjoy ourselves and basically get our music to as many people as we can. So we have to figure out what’s the best way to get to the most people the quickest.
HT: Do have any other plans for the band in general?
TR: We’re gonna be working on a new album at the end of the year and we already have the songs for it. We just basically write the songs and we’re a very song-based act really. The songs deal really with our own emotions and lives. So it’s really a reflection of our own internal psychies really.
We just keep writing the songs and record them and play them and hopefully people will like them and tour and hopefully just make some fans and friends as we play at some shows. That’s what we’d like to do. We hope to see fans out there and we hope they give us a listen.
photos by Josh Mintz / photosbyjosh.com
When it came time to go to the airport on November 13, little did I know what the journey held in store.
Just moments after stepping in to the security line of the Atlanta airport, I soon came to realize that this, like so many journeys before, was about to become another in the long line of my memorable adventures with the notorious Rev. Buddy Greene.
Before Buddy arrived, I turned around to see Jimmy Herring stepping in line just behind me. While I thought it seemed obvious that I, too, was heading to Denver for the weekend run of Phil and Friends shows, Jimmy’s first question to me was “Where are you going?” Before long, the friendly hellos turned to talk of music, which led to my asking if Jimmy was heading to Boulder after the flight to sit in with Govt Mule.
Much to my surprise, Jimmy was completely unaware of the show. By the time we made it through security and headed to the Crowne Room, my campaign to drag him along with the Rev. and I was in full swing. While Jimmy was unable to make a definite commitment at the time, not knowing what was in store for him once we landed, I knew the groundwork that had been laid would somehow lead to his appearance that night.
As we said goodbye leaving the Denver airport, the Rev. and I put forth one last attempt at hijacking Jimmy to come with us to Boulder. Unsuccessful, we persisted with “We’ll see you there,” “It’s going to be a blast,” “That Paul Stacey in Chris Robinson’s band is great, you’d love playing with him,” and anything else we could think of in an attempt to pique his interest in joining our journey.
We then headed to Boulder, where we were promptly greeted with, “There are no tickets for you” at the box office. Freezing cold, and surrounded by ticketless fans trying to get in, we soon wondered if this trip was going to become the antithesis of our amazing trips throughout the previous year. As we were told that the show was over sold, and that 25 names had been dropped from the guest list to keep the crowd within legal limits, our concern grew greater. However, we kept in mind the fact that, even under much more daunting circumstances than this, neither the Rev. nor I had ever been shut out of a show.
And then, the moment we were waiting for – the sign of a final guest list being bought to the ticket window. Suddenly, all of our concerns were eased, tickets and passes were in hand, and we headed in to the show.
And what a show it was.
Robinson and New Earth Mud opened with the best set I’d ever seen them play. By the time Mule worked their way down “Monkey Hill”, I realized they were playing their self-titled debut album. From beginning to end, a near flawless set, and, before it would end, the Rev. and I were rejoicing on many accounts, including the fact that much of the crowd joined us in chanting, “Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy” as our friend was suddenly spotted on the side of the stage.
The New Earth Mule Unit
The reaction on the faces of each member of Mule as they looked over and saw Jimmy told us all that no one, except for the Rev. and I, was expecting his arrival. As he looked in our direction and smiled with that infectious grin, our anticipation of the next set grew all the more intense.
While set two would bring forth no more (original) Mule, it did bring Chris Robinson back to the stage. The set opened with a pair of classic covers, “Hard To Handle” and “Almost Cut My Hair”, and the show would only get better from there. “Sometimes Salvation” has long been one of my favorites, whether performed by Mule or by the Black Crowes. Having Robinson on stage to share the vocals with Warren only made it all the better.
Then, the moment we had cheered for was upon us as we looked behind Warren and saw Jimmy strapping on a guitar, all the while looking our way, continuing to grin, and giving us a thumbs-up sign as he walked on to the stage for “Dreams.”
“Let Jimmy sing,” a chant that will seemingly follow this stellar musician through the rest of his career, rang through the crowd between songs. This left Jimmy shaking his head “no” as he gazed down laughing at the perpetrator, none other the Rev. Then, Jimmy and the rest of the band raged through a memorable cover of the Cream classic “Politician.” From there, an all out jam, Mule style, ensued, starting with a great “Drums” in which Matt Abts was joined by New Earth Mud’s Jeremy Stacey. This was followed by a battle of dual lead guitars as Jimmy and Paul Stacey took the stage, leaving Warren in much the same state as us, a smiling bystander, watching as these two sensational players matched each other note for note.
Through years of touring with bands such as the Aquarium Rescue Unit, Jazz Is Dead, and Project Z, Jimmy Herring has always remained somewhat of an underground secret, a man who, with a guitar in his hands, can fill a room with emotion, joy, and pure musical bliss. I have seen Jimmy take the stage with some of the most famous names to ever play guitar, and without fail, his playing has always rivaled that of his more famous counterparts. On this night, it was Jimmy who was the better known of the two players on stage. And, although his playing was every bit as good as ever, for once he was not the most outstanding player on stage. Stacey took control of the jam and, from my perspective at least, actually outplayed the man who is rarely outdone by anyone once he straps on a guitar. While listening to discs of the show at a later date did not necessarily leave me with the same impression, on this night, I was certainly more impressed with Stacey than either of the other guitarists on stage (which is saying a lot, as Warren and Jimmy would both rank in my Top 5 favorite players of all time).
But, in the end, the most lasting memories of this, the first of a remarkable four-night run through Colorado with Govt Mule and the Q would always be the story of getting to the show, the feeling of excitement we felt when we finally saw Jimmy enter the Theater, and the pure joy of seeing him take the stage, joining a collective group of musicians from two bands, playing as one, who all seemed to be having every bit as much fun as those of us in the crowd.
Now, if we could only get Jimmy to open up those vocal chords…