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.

 

 

 

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