Sounds Local by Columnist Sheryl Hunter: Making music in a lockdown one line at a time 

  • LESA BEZO LESA BEZO

  • Amy Gates, a member of the board of the Downtown Amherst Foundation wipes down chairs and tables in preparation for opening night at the Drake on Tuesday. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Professor Louie & The Crowmatix

Published: 4/27/2022 12:54:53 PM
Modified: 4/27/2022 12:53:25 PM

Have you ever played that parlor game where one person writes a line to a story and then the next person writes the next line and you pass it around the room?” asks musician Henning Ohlenbusch in a recent email. “In the spring of 2020, we came up with the idea to try to do that with music.” The result is the nine song album called “Satellite Bells.”

As the pandemic kept everyone at home and forced working musicians into an instant state of unemployment, Ohlenbusch who fronts the band Gentle Hen, joined forces with fellow local musicians Jim Armenti of the Lonesome Brothers, Lesa Bezo of the Fawns and J.J. O’Connell of Spouse and the Soul Magnets to create some music.

But they were not going to make music in the traditional way. The idea was that this group of musicians, who have all been part of various musical projects over the years, would write songs remotely. Each musician would work in their home and communicate their musical ideas with the others by sending files of recorded music and emails. The song would come together with one line at a time, just like in the parlor game that Ohlenbusch mentioned. Each person would add their contributions until the song was completed.

“It pretty much started as an experiment to see if we could create a song this way. Jim, Henning, and Lesa came up with the idea and then asked me to be involved,” said drummer O’Connell. ” But it turned into more than just something to pass the time during COVID lockdown.”

“One person would create a steady beat that lasts a few minutes and then send that file to someone else, that person would maybe play a few chords for a verse and pass it along, the next person would add some chords for a chorus, or maybe a little melodic bit over the first chords,” wrote Ohlenbusch about the process.” Someone else would add a bass, or a piano, or a saxophone, or drums, or some other surprise. Or maybe we’d start with drums and nothing else.”

Once they had somewhat of a song structure, a melody would come next, then some lyrics, and the vocals. Some of the songs have multiple singers.

They worked on this project on and off for two years and during this time they never met in person or even spoke. Each musician was in lockdown in their home only communicating to the others by computer. The songs came together with each musician having no idea what the others were up to. “We never knew where the next email was going to take us, lyrically, melodically, rhythmically, thematically, emotionally,” they wrote on their BandCamp page.

“It was exciting to see/hear what someone would come up with next. It was only after we had a few songs completed that we started to think about an album,” said O’Connell.

Making an album one line at a time?

It sounds like a fun game but a possible recipe for disaster when it comes to making music. However, these four talented musicians were not only able to write songs in this manner. They wrote good songs.

“Satellite Bells” takes listeners on a wild ride with no rules, no expectations, and no one style to adhere too. The album starts simple with a less than two-minute mid-tempo rocker called “The Shadows,” which features some nice vocals by Bezo. It’s the kind of song that goes down nicely and stays with you.

From there, things shift, as they explore different sonic universe’s. “Hearing Voices” starts with a melodic clarinet and some heavy drums before dissolving into a cacophony of noise. A blast of power punk fuels “Big Night Sky” while a smoldering sax adds to the melancholy of “We Belong.”

“Satellite Bells” captures a variety of moods and emotions and brilliantly captures the strangeness of the times. “The Ordinarialist” utilizes spoken word and singing as the phrase

“In the dark we focus on any sound.” One of the many times this disc reflects the sense of isolation that the songwriters were experiencing.

All four participants here accomplished songwriters and musicians, and it shows.They approach these songs like master chefs adding all types of sonic flourishes on the material while keeping them grounded in memorable melodies and powerful rhythms. The disc ends with the title track, a dreamy slightly psychedelic tune that is a soothing listen. “Satellite Bells” is an intriguing listen, especially when we consider how it was made and how challenging this must have been.

“There were technical hurdles to this project, of course, but there was a much deeper challenge,” said Ohlenbusch. “We each had to be able to allow the process and the collaboration to flow wherever it wanted to flow. As a songwriter, you generally have an idea of what you’re trying to do. But in this project, since you never knew which turn the thing was going to take, you couldn’t really have any kind of destination in mind. The goal was to relinquish all sense of control.”

Once they felt they had nine completed songs, the group surprised released the album on BandCamp in early March. “I know we are all quite proud of how it turned out,” said O’Connell. “For me it was one of the few highlights during a pretty dark time during the last two years.”

“It’s a snapshot of two strange years between 2020 and 2022 when we were all floating around in a vacuum,” said Ohlenbusch. “So far away from each other, but ringing out anyway like satellite bells.

Professor Louie & The Crowmatix at the Shea Theater

Grammy nominated Professor Louie & the Crowmatix with the Woodstock Horns will take the stage at the Shea Theater Arts Center on Saturday, April 30, at 8 p.m. Unlike most tribute bands, Professor Louie has actual ties to the Band as he worked with the group for over 15 years, and co-produced, played and sang on their last three studio albums. He also produced solo albums for three of the original members — Rick Danko, Levon Helm and Garth Hudson. He formed the Crowmatix as a backing group for the Band but they later branched out on their own and have been nominated for five Grammy awards and have released 14 albums. For this show, Professor Louie ( a name given him by Rick Danko) will feature songs he learned from the Band and songs he helped create with them. They will also play some Bob Dylan tunes and some material from the Crowmatix catalog.

For advance tickets, visit sheatheater.org

The Return of the Drake

Many of you will remember the Drake in Amherst, it was a dive bar that was a favorite watering hole back in the 70s. It wasn’t unusual for people to trek down from Greenfield, to hang out at the Drake. The Drake closed in 1985 and over the years, it has become something of a local legend. The club is now about to be resurrected — at least in name that is. This weekend the new Drake opens not in its original spot near Amherst Cinema but on Pleasant Street. In its new incarnation, it will be a live music venue and bar. Oddly enough, for a major college town it’s the first live music club to be located in downtown Amherst. Laudable Production the folks that bring us Barbes in the Woods and Bombyx Center for Arts & Equity in Florence will be booking the shows.

The first concert will take place tomorrow night with alt-rocker Dinosaur, Jr. it makes sense the band that got its start in Amherst launch the new venue. The band haven’t played Amherst since 1993. Since this is a small venue with only 200 tickets available for this show, tickets were distributed via a lottery. The show is now sold out. But there are plenty of shows coming up, including Greenfield’s very own electronic-pop duo Home Body who will play the Drake on Sunday, May 1 at 8 p.m. To purchase tickets and view the complete calendar visit thedrakeamherst.org.

Sheryl Hunter is a freelance writer who resides in Easthampton. Her work has appeared in various regional and national publications. She can be reached at Soundslocal@yahoo.com.


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