‘A wallop of a statement’
Rob Skelton during a recent Pitchfork practice session in Leverett. Trish Crapo photo.
Bass player Brian Rodrix during a recent Pitchfork practice session in Leverett. Trish Crapo photo.
Tom Rickard plays acoustic guitar during a recent Pitchfork practice in Leverett. Trish Crapo photo
Mauri reads from one of his back-pocket-sized books during a recent practice in Leverett. Trish Crapo photo.
Drummer J.J. Humphrey during a recent Pitchfork practice session in Leverett. Trish Crapo photo.
Slide trombonist J. Starpoli plays during one of Pitchfork's recent practices in Leverett. Trish Crapo photo.
Tuba player Kevin Smith plays during a recent Pitchfork practice session in Leverett. Trish Crapo photo.
Embossed plate used to make Yeoman cover art by John Sendelbach and an old pitch fork
PIONEER VALLEY SYMPHONY presents its final concert of the season titled “Mozart and Mahler at the Movies.” Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Greenfield High School, Lenox Avenue, Greenfied. Works that have been performed in movies as varied as “Runaway Bride” and “The Accompanist.” Includes Mozart “Marriage of Figaro Overture” and “Vesperae solenne de confessore” and Mahler Symphony No. 4. $20 adults, $17 seniors/students, $6 children, on the Web, at 413-773-3664, or bought at the door. For reservations, call 773-3664 or go to pvso.org. Tickets also at World Eye Bookshop in Greenfield, Boswell’s Books in Shelburne Falls, Amherst Books in Amherst, and Broadside Books in Northampton.
On a surprisingly warm night in early December, South Deerfield forester Mike Mauri and the members of the “post-punk folk” band Pitchfork met in Leverett for one of their weekly Monday practice sessions. As other band members arrived and set up, Pitchfork’s Rob Skelton strapped on his harmonica and guitar and began to lay down what he thinks of as the “framework” of a melody. One by one, other instruments joined in — drums, bass, another guitar, tuba, slide trombone — each new tone deepening and elaborating Skelton’s riff. And, as he would if they were at a performance, Mauri stands on the sidelines, unhurried, listening until he senses which of his poems might work with what he’s hearing. Only then does he step up to the mic.
Mauri first stepped on stage with Pitchfork during the Leverett Co-op’s Spring Fling in 2008. It was somewhat of an ad-hoc arrangement, though Mauri and Skelton had known each other for years. Remembering that first impromptu gig, Mauri shakes his head and says, “It was a very improbable situation. We just did it and it worked.”
It works in an unforced, sidelong way, the way a conversation between strangers on a train sometimes works. Mauri’s poems are not exactly lyrics and Pitchfork’s music is not exactly accompaniment. Nobody’s trying too hard.
“It’s not a collaboration so much as a juxtaposition,” Skelton said, “It’s a nice fit, where we collide.”
Mauri said that reading with the band does sometimes alter the poem in that he’ll add words or repeat phrases to help it click rhythmically. But these additions never change the poem’s meaning. “It’s like adding shims to keep the thing balanced,” he said.
Both Mauri and Skelton had been weaving local lore and social commentary into their work for over a decade before they played together that first time. Mauri was producing what Skelton admiringly referred to as “guerilla books” — small books of poems designed to fit in a back pocket — and reading at area open mics, including the Greenfield Annual Word Festival and the monthly ALL SMALL CAPS readings at the Dejá Brew in Wendell. Skelton was putting together what slide trombone player J. Starpoli called “different incarnations of Pitchfork” and playing at area venues.
The two have long shared an interest in the Pioneer Valley’s local history and lore. One of the songs on Skelton’s 2002 CD “Rasputin” tells the story of Carrie Pratt, who ran a whorehouse in South Hadley; Mauri relates the stories of Mary Rowlandson, a Deerfield woman captured by Indians in the 1600s, and Mary Webster, a Hadley woman of the same time period tried for witchcraft.
“We had a well-oiled musical machine,” Skelton said, of Pitchfork. “And Mike had a strong tonal authority.”
A forester by trade, Mauri prefers to say he writes poems rather than to identify himself as a poet. He suspects poetry can’t take too much spotlight. He knows he can’t. At readings, he approaches the mic casually, his boots spattered with the pale blue paint he uses to mark trees. He slides one of his collections from his back pocket and reads the poems in a low, even tone without any introduction or fanfare, a copy shop pen behind his ear.
Mauri’s books, which Skelton described as, “self generated, low-tech and real,” include poems that take on the topics of local history, nuclear power, the national economy and backyard chicken raising, to mention just a few. Or a poem might take on nothing more than a family of skunks crossing the road. There’s an unassuming, succinct quality to some of the imagery and a note of humor in his tone that brings to mind the long-revered Buddhist tradition but Mauri is wary of being pigeon-holed there, too. In the 1990s, he said, he did read translations of the work of the 14th-century Chinese poet known as Stonehouse and the Buddhist influence on the Beats may have affected him as well. Other influences he mentions include Henry David Thoreau and Emily Dickinson, to whom his book, “and liquors strongly brewed,” is addressed. Like many of Mauri’s narratives, “and liquors strongly brewed” begins within a specific event or locale: in this instance, a marathon reading of Dickinson’s work held at her Amherst home, now a museum. The book then ranges through time. The common denominator seems to be human nature and, beyond that, nature.
Which poem Mauri chooses to read to a given melody is dependent on his mood on any given night and might not always produce the same pairing, he said, though Pitchfork and Mauri have recently recorded a CD together and Skelton is leaning toward cementing some of the ones that click. The CD, titled “Yeoman,” was recorded in three live sessions with no overdubs, drummer J.J. Humphrey said.
“What happened, happened,” Humphrey said, smiling. All of the band members agreed that there was one particularly successful session that produced most of the tracks on “Yeoman.”
“Yeoman” is not the title of any of Mauri’s poems but is a word that appears in his narrative “Mary Webster.” To Skelton, the word refers to independent peasant stock that settled this area. Mauri added that the phrase “yeoman effort,” means “a hard, substantial core effort,” the kind of effort the people he likes to write about — farmers, nuclear power plant workers — are accustomed to making.
Other members of Pitchfork include Kevin Smith on tuba; Brian Rodriques, bass guitar; Tom Rickard, guitar; J. Starpoli on slide trombone. Skelton plays guitar, harmonica and tambourine, which — all parts of him being otherwise vigorously occupied — he stomps with his foot. As Mauri steps in to read, then retreats, steps back in, the music moves from background groove to full-out jam and back again.
Starpoli said that there are times he pulls his instrument back so that it’s providing support for Mauri’s voice; at other times there’s room for the trombone to interact as another voice. “For me, music is as much about listening as playing,” Starpoli said. “We never do the same thing twice.”
“I don’t think we steer it,” Humphrey said, adding that he and the other musicians can’t listen too hard to Mauri’s words. “He might say ‘maple tree’ and then I’m thinking, ‘It’s about time to set some taps,’ or ‘There’ll be syrup soon,’ and next thing I know I want some pancakes.”
Once Mauri begins reciting his poem, “The band is elastic around that,” Skelton said.
The night of the practice, Skelton congratulated band members on the accomplishment “Yeoman” represents.
“I think artistically, it’s a wallop of a statement,” he said. “I think it’s amazing that we made it. It’s unlike anything else.” He credits sound engineer Dan Richardson of Lil Shack Records in Northampton for “making it all sound good,” and artist John Sendelbach for making it look good.
“He’s a mad-dog metal guy,” Skelton said of Sendelbach, who created an original copperplate for the CD cover.
“Yeoman” is on the shelves at Turn It Up! stores in Montague, Northampton, Keene, N.H., and Brattleboro, Vt., giving it, Mauri says, “A firm footing within the geographic reach of its subject matter.” It can also be purchased as a CD or download through the online independent music store CD Baby: www.cdbaby.com/cd/mikemauri
A CD-release party is scheduled for Sunday, Dec. 16, 7 to 9 p.m. at Luthier’s Co-op, 108 Cottage St., Easthampton, MA. For more information www.luthiers-coop.com/events/
Mauri’s books are available at the Montague Bookmill, 440 Greenfield Road Montague, 413-367-9206.
You can watch Pitchfork band members and Mauri perform his poem “the recession is fundamentally sound,” recorded live on Valley Homegrown in 2008: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e36MMq04TiQ
You can listen to Rob Skelton perform “Shakersong,” a rapidfire account of Shaker accomplishments and lifestyle backed up by a rolling Johnny Cash-inspired bass line: www.myspace.com/music/player?sid=8772307&ac=now
Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer who lives in Leyden. She has a studio in Greenfield. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org