Color Me Beige

Pictured: Merrit Andrews and his son Steve Westfield at Luthier’s Co-op.

(photo by Dave Madeloni)

By Johnny Memphis

“Everybody pick a key!” yelled Steve Westfield out of the blue. It was the big rock ending of the last song of Saturday night’s Beige show at Luthier’s Co-op in Easthampton. Westfield jumped in the air with his electric guitar and when he landed each member of Beige played a random chord. It didn’t sound too bad. Maybe some of the eight-piece band unwittingly picked the same or related chords. “Pick another key!” yelled Westfield, who jumped up in the air again like a rock star and landed with a wacky sounding splat. There were a lot of colors in that group-improv dis-chord, especially for a band named Beige. Then Westfield started jumping up and down and the band synchronized a thump with every time he landed, as best they could. Westfield didn’t make it easy with his arrhythmic, spastic intervals, sometimes pausing for absurd amounts of time, until he finally shuddered to a stop. We think. One more. Just this last one. Really, this is it. I mean it this time. Okay. Splunk. “Now, drum solo!”

It’s not like Beige rehearsed the ending. I know because I used to play bass in Beige. Beige plays out four times a year (“quarterly” as Westfield lies to put it) and rehearses scantily. Arrangements exist but are subject to change. Westfield likes some organization mixed with heaping portions of spontaneity and surprise. Born Steve Andrews in Westfield, MA his first claim to fame was the infamous Pajama Slave Dancers. In 1985 the dean of rock critics Robert Christgau from the Village Voice reviewed their album Cheap is Real and wrote, “the magnificent ‘I Want to Make Love to You’ is on a level with Spinal Tap itself.” How about them Big Apples? If you liked the albums you should have seen the live show- comedic, thunderous, mock-rock performance art orchestrated by Westfield, the calm, straight-faced mischief-maker, a bent Bing Crosby with a Strat. “Problems with Sects.” “Bare Naked in Bed with You.” “Train Wreck on Prom Night.”

I have known Steve Westfield since the mid 1980s from shows at Sheehan’s Café in Northampton and the Zone in Springfield where he was the ringleader of a local music scene that included acts like Raymond and the Circle (“Oh, those chariots of fire”) and the disco-garage band called Check, Please! I played bass in Check, Please! so when Steve and his family moved from Westfield to my home town of Florence I happily joined his new ska project called Beige. As soon as I joined, I knew I didn’t have the mental space to be in Beige, but Steve is so much fun I stayed for a year. When I finally quit the band I suggested Steve replace me with his son, Stephen who is a great young bassist. Perfect. And you never really leave one of Steve’s band, as you can see by the Beige personnel at Luthier’s, thickly settled by refugees from the Slow Band, another Westfield project.

Luthier’s is a long, cool nightclub set in a music store on the east end of Cottage Street in Easthampton. Banjos and fiddles hang on the walls and on Saturday night winter coats were strewn over amplifiers waiting to be fixed. On stage, the band in various shades of beige featured the Andrews father/son team on guitar and bass, Kevin French on drums, Stiv French (no relation) on keyboards/sampler and a killer horn section with baritone sax (Tom Mahnken,), tenor sax (Dave Trenholm,) and trombone (Mark Turcotte,) plus a great vibes player (Bob Richards) who gave the ska some Mexican-marimba cilantro-seasoning . The audience was a mixture of teenagers and old friends, curiosity seekers and old folks. The teens came to see the previous act, Court Etiquette, a rockin’ band of Northampton High kids that included Steve’s daughter Mary on vocals and keyboards and my son Chris on drums. Steve’s dad and step-mother, Merrit and Joyce, were sitting at a table right in front of the stage. In the middle of one song Steve walked off the stage and stood on their little table while playing guitar. Steve then took off his guitar and put the strap over Merrit’s shoulders and had his dad take a solo. To no one’s surprise Merrit was a rock and roll maniac with chops at least as demented as those of Steve, who gleefully pounded the guitar effects box he held over his head while his dad shredded.

Steve is amazing with audiences. He engages with them and their expectations. As one friend said last year after seeing Westfield hosting the Really Big Gong Show at the Academy of Music, “You just feel better when Steve is on stage.” Saturday night Steve got the crowd singing along with his tender “Kissing Game.” The song’s big moment came when Steve brought the volume way down and sang the hook, “You take my clothes off for me, I’ll take your clothes off for you.” Steve divided the crowd in half and had the two sides compete to see who could sing it best. The band dropped out completely and it was just a bunch of people in a bar in Easthampton singing, “You take my clothes off for me, I’ll take your clothes off for you” to each other. “Now let’s see who can sing it the quietest,” said Westfield. “Whisper it.” “Hmm. That was kinda loud,” he complained.

A month ago Steve Westfield performed as Santa Claus on stage with Lord Elvis at the Flo Ho Ho yuletide shindig in the Florence VFW Ballroom. Lord Elvis is an Elvis Presley tribute act performed by the legendary local vocalist Lord Russ. As Lord Elvis, Russ sang live to a pre-recorded backing track and at Flo Ho Ho he sang so well you almost thought he was lip-synching. Santa Steve came on stage to give Elvis a gift (a box of chocolates) and then stuck around to play air keyboards for the last song, the melodramatic “If I Can Dream” from the ‘68 Comeback Special. As the song built in drama, so too, Santa Steve. He turned around and “played” the keyboards behind his back, then started rocking side to side with his beard swinging to and fro. In a frenzy he started rocking the whole keyboard stand and a plastic cup of beer went flying. At the majestic ending Santa’s hat fell off and he collapsed exhausted, face down over the keyboards as Elvis said, “Thank you, thank you very much. You have been a beautiful audience.” All you could see of Santa was a huge mound of white hair and beard covering the keys.

Here is Lord Elvis and Santa Steve Westfield at Flo Ho Ho performing “If I Can Dream.” The video was shot by Dann Vazquez.




Aretha Lives!

Did you see the look on Carole King’s face when Aretha Franklin came out and sat down at the piano to sing “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” at the Kennedy Center Honors last month? Carole looked like she was going to jump out of her ball-gown. Honorees always look surprised and delighted when a famous person pays them tribute, but this was on a whole ‘nother level. For one thing, Carole is not a bull-shitter. After her album Tapestry exploded she moved to a remote town in Idaho and became a rancher and environmentalist. She is not from Hollyweird.

At the Kennedy Center Carole King was genuinely blown away for several possible reasons. Number one, Aretha showed up. You never know with the Queen of Soul. Aretha is the diva of divas. She gets her nose out of joint at the slightest provocation. But there she was, walking out on stage. Carole threw kisses to Aretha. Aretha threw them back. Clive Davis in the audience looked like he was going to cry. Davis is the record company honcho who has guided Aretha’s recording career since 1980. He knows Aretha’s genius and difficulty.

Then Aretha went over to sit at the piano and Carole had to cover her gaping mouth with her hand because she was so astonished. Aretha was going to sing and play the piano! This was a very good sign. When Aretha plays the piano she digs deeper into the music. This is one big reason why her classic Atlantic records immediately surpassed her earlier Columbia albums. It is also one reason why Tapestry is so good. Carole and Aretha both accompany themselves sublimely. They have that in common. And just listen to that commanding piano intro by Aretha at the Kennedy Center. Game on! It was reminiscent of the moment in 1967 when she showed up at Muscle Shoals Recording Studio in Alabama and sat down at the piano to record her first song for Atlantic.

Songwriter Dan Penn talks about that moment in 1967 in Sweet Soul Music by Peter Guralnick. “I knew about Aretha way before she got there. Rick [Rick Hall, the studio owner] contacted me about the session, but he didn’t know who in hell was coming in. I said, ‘Who you got?’ He said, ‘Aretha Franklin.’ I said, ‘Boy, you better get your damn shoes on. You getting someone who can sing.’ Even the Memphis guys didn’t really know who in the hell she was. I said, ‘Man, this woman gonna knock you out.’ They’re all going, ‘Big deal!’ When she came in there and sit down at the piano and hit that first chord, everybody was just like little bees buzzing around the queen. You could tell by the way she hit the piano the gig was up. It was ‘Let’s get down to serious business.’”

Aretha Franklin is 73 now (the exact same age as Carole King) and not surprisingly her voice has gotten raspy with age and has lost some of the top end. At the Kennedy Center it did not matter. Aretha’s voice was weathered, but on the money and rising to the occasion. She loves the big-time spotlight and a chance to show the world again, why she is still the Queen. When she sang “Amazing Grace” for Pope Francis this year it was as though she was granting him an audience. In the Kennedy Center audience Michelle was rapt, Barack teary. Aretha is a huge supporter of the Democratic Party and Obama in particular.

Pacing the song expertly, Aretha was measured at first, taking her time, like a dowser looking for a wellspring of soul. By the second verse she was finding it, rearing back with inspired cries, building momentum. After the second chorus, Aretha stood up from the piano and made her way down to the front of the stage. Going into the last chorus, Aretha was hitting the high notes and holding them, shaking them, squeezing them, wringing them. “I feel like, I feel like, Oh-ohhh, Oh-ohhh.” As she slipped one arm out of her fur overcoat, her singing went to another level and the audience spontaneously jumped to their feet. She threw the overcoat to the floor. It was Aretha the way we remember her, singing her butt off, big and beautiful, revealing her self as we revel in her amazing soulfulness. At the end Aretha was in the throes of the music crying out, “A woman! A woman! A woman!” I’ll say.

There is a superb biography of Aretha Franklin called Respect by David Ritz published in 2014. In 2013 Ritz saw Aretha demonstrate her undiminished power at a show in Newark. In the middle of a lackluster show she suddenly got inspired while singing B.B. King’s “Sweet Sixteen.” “Early in this traditional twelve bar blues, she caught the Holy Ghost. She performed the miracle that only the greatest of R&B artists can realize- the union of the sacred and the secular, the marriage of heaven and earth- as she broke into a little church dance, not caring that her bra straps were slipping and her gown askew.”

The Kennedy Center Honors occurred on December 6, 2015 and were broadcast on December 29, 2015. This clip is introduced by Chilina Kennedy from the musical Beautiful in character as Carole King.