Finding their groove once again

  • Lonesome Brothers. Contributed photo/Brandi Ediss

For the Recorder
Published: 5/13/2021 10:30:02 AM

When the popular alt-country band the Lonesome Brothers play at the Hitchcock Brewing Company in Bernardston on Sunday afternoon (May 16) at 1 p.m., it will be the group’s first time playing out since the pandemic hit. It’s fitting, then, that this show is part of a celebration, as the local brewery is also celebrating its fifth anniversary this weekend.

The brewing company, which launched in Whately in May of 2016 and moved to Bernardston in September 2019, has been a welcoming home to some excellent local music, and music will be a big part of the venue’s upcoming three-day celebration, as it hosts shows by Amber Belle and the Bottoms, Eavesdrop and the Lonesome Brothers.

The Lonesome Brothers, featuring Jim Armenti on guitar, Ray Mason on bass and Keith Levreault on drums, has been delighting local audiences with a unique brand of alt-country music for the past 36 years. Mason and Armenti formed the band in 1986 and they have appeared on Prairie Home Companion and at the 2007 Newport Folk Festival. They have also opened shows for Carlene Carter, NRBQ, Cry Cry Cry, the Bottle Rockets and the Flatlanders, amongst others. The band features two talented songwriters in Mason and Armenti, who also add impressive instrumental skills, sharp wit and wide-ranging influences. Altogether, the group is one of the most engaging and admired bands on the local scene.

This seemed the perfect time to check in with Mason, who has been a major factor in the scene for many years and has even earned the title “Godfather of the local scene.”

Mason, who in addition to his work with the Lonesome Brothers, fronts his pop-rock band the Ray Mason Band and records and performs solo. Unlike his partner, Jim Armenti, who has released some solo material and played some virtual shows as part of the backing band for the Young at Heart Chorus over the last year, Mason has been laying low during the pandemic. Unlike many musicians, he did not do shows from his home or focus on recording during this time. Instead, Mason told me he hunkered down at his Haydenville home and concentrated on songwriting. 

Before the pandemic, Mason, who has been working steadily as a musician since the 1960s, played at least one show a week. To be suddenly not working was a dramatic shift.

“The last time the Lonesomes played together was on Thursday, March 12 (2020) at the New City Brewery in Easthampton, and things were starting to get a little strange then. People weren’t shaking hands or anything,” recalled Mason in a recent phone conversation. “The next night, I played solo at the Fort Hill Brewery and on my drive home I was thinking, ‘this is the last gig.’ And it was. From then on, every gig on my calendar got canceled.”

For a musician who plays out as much as Mason does, one would think that to suddenly be sidelined would be extremely difficult — but he took it all in stride.

“To not play a gig for over a year is unheard of for every musician, but I knew that, eventually, it would return, but perhaps not in the exact same way,” Mason said. “Besides, everybody was going through the same thing and it’s not like I was away from music because I'm working on things every day.”

“I made a joke once that, every so many days, I was going to go pack up my car, load my bass and amp in, let it sit for five hours and then go back out and unload it,” he added with a laugh.

A native of Holyoke, Mason has a disciplined approach toward songwriting, working on a song early in the day and returning to it in the evening for more revisions. He has no recording gear at home, so he writes out the songs and then memorizes them.

Mason has written some 47 songs over the past year. He said six will go on a Lonesome Brothers album and another 10 will go on a Ray Mason Band album that he hopes to record in New York City with producer Eric Amble. He said the rest of the songs will go on various solo records.

Of course, Mason doesn’t know when he’ll get around to doing all this, adding that he’s also working with former Ray Mason Band member Matt Cullen on an archival recording of a show that the band recorded at Sheehans Cafe back in 1989 that they plan to release as a live recording.

A follow-up to the last Lonesome Brothers’ album, “Check Engine” which was released in 2013, is in the works. The band had started recording a new album at the Ashfield studio of Tom Mahnken (Trailer Park) in early March of last year, but the group’s work was cut short when the pandemic struck. Mason hopes they will be able to resume work on this project soon.

It should be mentioned that The Lonesome Brothers did record a couple of songs for the Northampton Arts Council that respectively aired on their Transperformance and First Night broadcasts, but that was it.

When a band has been together as long as the Lonesome Brothers, you don’t have to worry about the time gap between gigs having much of an impact. Mason hasn’t played his bass much this past year because he does all his writing on guitar. “I’m practicing bass for this Lonesome Brothers gig. I haven’t stood up and played bass, and my bass weights a ton and it feels even heavier now,” he added with a laugh.

He’s looking forward to the show this weekend and mentioned that the Lonesomes have some more outside events booked for the summer. We have 40 songs set to play — 20 of Jim’s and 20 of mine. But I don’t know how many we will get to play,” Mason said.

As for playing new material, Mason said it won’t be played at this show. They plan to play some classic Lonesome Brothers songs — and there are so many to choose from: “Down by the Water,” “Frozen George,” “Crossing With the Cuckoo”; the list goes on and on.

“We are going to do a bunch of songs that we normally would do, but we haven’t done in over a year,” said Mason. “Once you start playing them, they come right back to you. People are going to be like ‘Hey! It’s like you guys never left.’”

Also playing this weekend is singer-songwriter Amber Belle and the Bottoms (Aaron Knapp and Matthew Thornton), which will take the stage on Friday at 5:30 p.m. Then on Saturday at 4 p.m., expect some tight harmonies and infectious tunes when the acoustic trio Eavesdrop (Kara Wolf, Laura Buchanan and Kerrie Bowdan) takes the stage at 4 p.m., when you will be able to hear some of the material off the group’s excellent self-titled release. 

All events are free on a first-come and first-serve basis at The Hitchcock Brewing Company, 203 South St. in Bernardston. It’s un-ticketed and will be held outdoors, rain or shine.

Sheryl Hunter is a music writer who lives in Easthampton. Her work has appeared in various regional and national magazines. You can contact her at soundslocal@yahoo.com.




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